The rise of Amazon and the loss(?) of place

To those of you reading this, Happy New Year, first and foremost.

It’s been a while since I’ve had a moment to write anything of real substance here.  The big (academic) deal, which I will write about in another post, is how teaching PrairyErth went this past fall.  However, this post is about that book, sort of–or, rather, mostly about the moment in time that that book was researched and written.  It is also about a book PrairyErth quotes from in several places, John Brinckerhoff Jackson’s classic work of landscape studies, Discovering the Vernacular Landscape (1984).  All during the fall semester, the fact that PrairyErth is 27 years old kept rearing its head, in a good way: While much in Chase County has not really changed much from William Least Heat-Moon’s time to ours, our various engagements with that space and the issues raised in PrairyErth have changed as much because of the Internet as because of the simple passage of time.  When I began reading Jackson’s book last week, though, I had assumed its arguments, because of their historical and theoretical nature, would not require much if any modification, even more than 30 years later.  Jackson, in his defining of landscape as “a composition of man-made spaces on the land” (7, author’s italics) and distinguishing between political and inhabited landscapes (the latter being very similar to what people mean by “place”), is considerably more sanguine about the fate of rural life in this country than Heat-Moon or Wendell Berry is: so long as people maintain some sort of connection to physical space, Jackson argues, our various landscapes will evolve as on-the-whole positive responses to evolving human social needs.  Heat-Moon senses in the Chase countians he meets that most of them know better than a bunch of outsiders what’s best for their county; Berry’s argument that farm mechanization in the name of efficiency has killed the vitality of rural life and is itself not sustainable in the long term is the very embodiment of a de facto detachment from the land.

For whatever it may be worth, I don’t share Jackson’s optimism about the fate of rural life, either; but I’d assumed that I was responding in that way because of my reading of the aforementioned Heat-Moon and Berry.  But then recently I read something that reminded me, again, that the Web has reshaped our understanding of how humans are linked to topography: it has so reshaped it that it feels as though culturally we’re all but unmoored from topography, all but completing (Western) culture’s separation from Nature that began a little over a century ago with the advent of Modernism.

My long-time friend Joel Mathis and his good friend Rebecca Barrett-Fox co-host a blog called 606, which they describe as a politics and culture blog “from a (mostly) Mennonite perspective.”  On Facebook the other day, Joel tagged me as someone whom he thought would be interested in his most recent post there, “The un-localing”  Turns out, he was right.  Using as his starting point a story about a Pennsylvania mall’s losing two of its three anchor stores in one day last year, Joel observes that the much-reported-on decline of traditional department stores (due to Amazon’s rapid growth) is, if anything, more insidious a threat to communities–and community–than the rapid expansion of Wal-Mart into small towns that began in earnest two decades ago:

People are increasingly buying online for a variety of reasons — convenience, expense, etc. But the result is going to do more damage to the kinds of communities you and I grew up in than Wal-Mart and its ilk ever did.

For all their manifold sins, those big corporations had a local presence — they employed local people and paid local taxes. Online outlets only rarely have the former and intermittently do the later (though that could change soon.) The Wal-Marts of the world may have displaced the previous business culture, but they replaced it with something tangible: Bricks, mortar, and people. Places that employed your neighbors, where you might run into them.

The online outlets offer no such advantages.

[snip]

We all have individual choices to make about whether to engage in the behaviors that are bringing this un-local world upon us. And we also have to decide if the cultural and social ramifications of un-localing require some kind of government response. The markets can give us cheaper widgets. They can’t always give us better communities.

As I read, I found myself thinking about the conclusion of Jackson’s chapter, “A Pair of Ideal Landscapes,” in which he notes that those who live in the inhabited landscape, if too hidebound by tradition or custom, end up not realizing the land’s full potential.  Similarly, a recurring subject in PrairyErth is Heat-Moon’s noting grazing practices in Chase County that threaten to exhaust the very land the county’s chief industry, ranching, depends on.  Berry, for his part, occupies something of a middle between these men with his overarching thesis that the industrialization of agriculture set into motion the economic hollowing-out of farming communities even before Wal-Mart’s expansion into those communities.  Jackson writes, “In the old sense of the word, the farmer undertook to improve his land, to bring it to its natural perfection, and this required of him that he learn to recognize the invisible potential of soils and animals and plants, the landscape of universal law instead of the landscape of local custom” (55, author’s italics).  I am sure you can see the connection between that passage and Joel’s comment above: at least Wal-Mart has a physical presence in the towns whose business districts it devastated via underselling and offering a greater variety of goods.  In theory, at least, Wal-Mart can choose to improve its communities by, for example, being a good steward of the labor of the people it hires as employees, by conserving energy and recycling, by contributing to local charities, etc.  Amazon’s storefront, by contrast, is your computer or smartphone: it is everywhere and nowhere; its warehouses store and distribute goods to people located hundreds of miles away from them.   It serves no community, only the desires of the individual contemplating making a purchase.  If Facebook is our virtual space’s public square, Amazon is the chief merchant on that square.

My only point, such as it is, is that Jackson’s book obviously came too soon to account for, much less to try to theorize, the virtual landscape of the Web: definitely a man-made space, but one completely detached, except for its infrastructure, from any connection to the land.  Given Jackson’s definitions for the two types of landscape, he clearly could not have imagined something like the Web, let alone how, in less than three decades, it has so transformed traditional assumptions about human culture’s connection to the land, to physical space–and, of course, to our fellow human beings. How does our present ability to buy just about anything and everything we could ever want without ever leaving home, let alone have to perform labor to produce that good or rely on and/or pay our neighbor to to so–how does that power affect how we think of the places where we live, or our ability to say we are from somewhere?  How might Jackson, were he alive today, update his thinking about landscapes to accommodate virtual spaces?

But never mind Jackson, or Heat-Moon, or Berry: as Joel intimates in his post, the questions raised by the Web and its sudden ubiquity as a mediator in any aspect of our social lives that you can think of, are ones that we Americans–a people whose origins are impossible to account for without taking into account our forebears’ desire for land–cannot merely respond to by shrugging our shoulders.

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