Notional Space

A couple of weeks ago I headed down to the farmers market. I walked through the covered walkway that separates a row of shops from the large bank on the corner, and turned left by the noodle restaurant as I always do. To get into the plaza where the market is held, I suddenly had to walk through a restaurant, and I hissed in frustration.

Walk through a restaurant? Not really. The noodle place had put up a pavilion in the back, so they could serve outside (permitted by the tier we were in at that time). They hadn’t purchased the walkway, or blocked it–they were just creating a notional dining room. They weren’t even open that time of day. I still felt resentful as I walked underneath it, as though through no fault of mine I was encroaching on personal, defined space.

Last week I participated in the “FOGCon social” on Zoom and Gather. FOGCon did not try to put on a full-blown online convention this year; instead, they did two events and I was able to attend one of them. Gather uses an avatar and a virtual room to allow you to drift from one conversation to another. The graphics look like an early video game. The other option was Zoom breakout rooms, something I’m familiar with. The breakout rooms had names by themes, “What are you reading?” “What are you watching?” and the one I chose, “The Hallway,” which offered freeform conversation.

In the actual Marriott Hotel, some of my favorite conversations happened in various hallways (and at barcon). The breakout room was just a set of people on Zoom, but it had the feel of a “notional” hallway, a casual gathering place where we talked about pets, books, TV shows, crows and burial practices.

Once when I was a kid we took a picnic lunch to the beach. It was one of the rare days at the Sonoma County coast when it was clear, not foggy, and also not freezing cold. We had finished our sandwiches and were lying back watching the waves when a little girl came running after the ball her brother had kicked. She leaped over the corner of our blanket and grabbed the ball. Her mother appeared like she’d been teleported. “You say you’re sorry!” she snapped. “I didn’t raise you to be so rude.” The little girl hung her head and said she was sorry. My mom took the lead, graciously saying it was quite all right. All right? She was apologizing for jumping over the corner of our blanket.

Except that wasn’t really what it was. She had entered our notional room without our permission. That was the infraction.

Remember in the early days of Zoom, when people would “invade” other people’s meetings? That’s an invasion of space, right? Imaginary, virtual space designated for one group. A room. You burst into the wrong room.

In the USA we do a lot with rooms. Rooms shore up our identities. Some of us have walls covered with diplomas, certificates and trophies. Some cover a wall with images of family, some with works of art, some with both. The metaphor of a room works well for us because we think of ourselves as living our lives in rooms, maybe? Anyway, they’re much more than shelter from the elements or enemies.

With a Zoom backdrop, we’ve extended that “shoring up identity” to the virtual world.

I don’t have a point to make. I’m just thinking about the notion of space, and how it changes, and the notion of notional space.

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