Marc Auge defines a Non-place as a space where humans remain largely anonymous and transient - airports, motorways, hotel rooms. Spaces that do not hold enough significance to be considered Places.
Consider airports that fit the definition of a Non-place perfectly. I do not remember anything about airports. In fact, I sleep really well when I'm in an airport or on a plane. The Non-placeness of airports has been furthered by Airpods and noise-canceling headphones. Drew Austin writes about how people only use headphones when the built environment is unpleasant or not worth paying attention to. Airports are perhaps the most insignificant of spaces you interact with on a semi-regular basis. If everything goes according to plan, no stories or narratives will unfold in airports. Stories happen in Non-places when something goes wrong.
For example, stories unfold in airports if you are stuck there for a long time - like in Die Hard 2, where John McClane finds himself in an airport crawling through ventilator ducts and finding side kicks once again, or The Terminal where Tom Hanks is a man seeking refuge in an airport. Stories also unfold in airports if it suddenly becomes your lived environment, like in the HBO adaptation of Station Eleven. In it, an airport becomes a civilization in a microcosm for people trying to survive an apocalypse. The airport, in fact, becomes the *only* place for its inhabitants since they cannot go outside of it.
In this sense, Non-Places become Places when stories and narratives unfold in them. The more the number of stories and narratives, the more significant of a place it becomes. Growing up in India, I heavily misjudged the ratio of Places to Non-places in the US because, if you watch Hollywood movies and TV shows, you would think that everyone walks to their neighborhood diner to meet friends and have interesting conversations. Narratives only unfold in Places, so my impression of the US was over-indexed on them. I got sold on the simulation of a Place, this perhaps epitomizes the idea of the American dream.
You could say that the ratio of Non-places to Places determines how interesting a city is. For example, while both Houston and Los Angeles are car cities, Los Angeles has more Places while Houston has more Non-places. Even though connected by freeways, Los Angeles neighborhoods are self-contained, highly dense, and walkable, and each has its own unique thing going for them.
As an interesting aside that breaks the pattern of narratives in Places vs Non-places, the Wim Wenders movie Paris Texas is set mainly in Non-places - from the desert of West Texas, motorways, sidewalks, hotel rooms, and motels. This works for the movie because Paris, Texas is about a man whose background and identity are unknown for most of the movie. The non-places lend their atmosphere perfectly to slowly unveiling who this man is and what his story is.
Spaces go from Place to Non-Place when narratives have seized to evolve in them. For example, consider the rapid revival of tennis courts around the country due to the rise in the popularity of pickleball. Tennis is the perfect Non-Place sport - you have to be focused, and it does not afford enough opportunity to socialize. Most of the time, the people you find playing tennis are old-timers and people who have played since high school. Pickleball, on the other hand, is a more social sport because the barrier of entry is really low, and you are physically closer to other players. While I abhor it aesthetically, pickleball has revived old worn-out tennis courts into Places.
There is also a component of human agency in making Non-places. People sometimes prefer non-places because being in a place means being okay with the uncertainty and unexpectedness of Places. I met someone the other day who said that they change their coffee shop if the people there start to recognize her, know her drink, and become friendly. The moment a non-place starts to become a place, she moves onto to the next non-place.
In Thousand Plateaus, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari distinguish between two kinds of spaces: smooth space and striated space. Smooth spaces are ungoverned and formless, like the desert or the sea. Striation makes it easy to govern a smooth space. For example, when longitude and latitude get added, the smooth space of the sea becomes striated. Both places and non-places are striated but in different ways. Non-places are striated for convenience and places are striated for stories. Non-places are built for fast, unobstructed movement. Places are built to linger and appreciate.
I'm not saying you should have a narrative experience whenever you go to the airport. That would be an ordeal. But as more places become non-places to optimize for some metric, what may end up being lost is our ability to find narratives - new and old.
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I began wearing headphones in spaces at least a decade ago and it only struck me while reading this that I’m an active participant in converting places to non-places.
Now I always wear headphones in the airport (logical) but also in the park or at the café (maybe less so).
This may also be why wearing headphones around the house can be comforting - I’m actively converting a high energy place (with a one-year old in constant action) into a narrative desert (giving myself a chance to take a breather).