The sense of vision is most important in cities today.

In our modern time, the age of high-speed communication, cities are the venues of incredibly dense networks of activity and information. The number of messages that one perceives as they negotiate the streets and paths of a city via car, bicycle or by foot are countless: from explicit advertisements to city logos embedded in the infrastructure; from the way people dress to the facades of strange and familiar buildings.

Our sense of vision both enables and prevents city-induced confusion. The city must be abstracted to be understood. Visible simplification of the complicated-city to simple, readable signifiers, facilitates otherwise overwhelming urbanity.

We could never perceive and know everything that exists in the city — there’s simply too much of it, and not enough time or reason. In a small town, a store, building or person can be made sense of in their entirety, because they stand unique. In the semiotics of the city, signifiers emerge naturally so that some sense can be made of a teeming, highly and densely populated urban place.

In a passive state-of-mind, the many houses and apartments one passes in a city remain two-dimensional facades, with minor features of architecture and quality simplified to tell a story about the contents inside. Houses and apartments are categorized into types, so that in our economy of thought, we can quickly understand these objects and pass them by without constant scrutiny.

People too are visually simplified into signifiers. The shape of a passing person becomes simply that, a passing person — with little thought about their personal history or intent.

My bike lock broke recently, and it no longer locks properly. But I continue to use it, even in extremely crowded city-spaces, because within the complexities of a city, a bike lock loses its meaning and becomes simplified as a signifier. When somebody happens upon my bike, and sees a black U-Lock in it’s typical spot, the fact that so many bikes exist in the same configuration means that it’s automatic message is: “Locked” — even if it is not locked at all.

So what do we do to counter-act the inevitable modern malaise that occurs from a world of so many sensory stimulations that we must simplify everything into symbols? We must be inquisitive, forge meaningful relationships, be forever interested in the urban space that surrounds us. Dig deeper, make communities, and get past the compartmentalization, the visual simplification of the modern city, modern life itself.

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