Informality, Enhanced

Why is it that so many of the people out there studying/analyzing/writing about new urban trends, new technologies, new social configurations, etc. are either well past or fast approaching midlife?


Watching academics (or worse: bureaucrats and business gurus) try to keep up with the frenetic pace of our present-day spatial, cultural, social, etc. milieus can be a sad sight. Pro Thinkers struggle like parents or marketeers or morning TV hosts to stay current and swank and therefore (allegedly) relevant.

They are quick to embrace buzz working concepts, and just as quick to dump them.


To make matters worse, even regular people like you or me have a hard time upholding concepts, just like we do keeping relationships, tastes, personal aims, political allegiances and attention spans. We consume our concepts like we consume our everydayness.


The problem is that a number of these concepts could actually be useful and significant. They are unfairly — even irresponsibly – deemed tired, passé, fizzle; superficially exhausted and then dumped.


One of the poor bastards in this bunch is the notion of "informality". After a brief, guilt-driven stint of Western academic and media focus on the subject, at the moment informality sounds as old and worn as French Theory. Something to roll your eyes over.


I don't want to redeem anything or anyone here. I just don't think ideas should be treated as disposable objects. Ideas always linger and creep back up when you least expect it.

It's only fair that we're tired of hearing the same stuff from the same people, over and over again. OK. But that doesn't mean that everything that needs to be said has been said.


Right now, more than anything else, I have some basic, intuitive, poorly-shaped questions. I guess they're mostly questions for myself (given my comment track record on this blog):

- Can anyone actually pin-point "informality"? Or is the notion simply elusive and any attempt at this futile?

- Is the concept itself inadequate? Particularly considering there isn't an actual divide between formal and informal, that they are both the same thing: reductive categories that try to organize and make sense of functional and active by-products of our (Modern, global) development schemes and efforts.

- Do we really have to keep opposing the "informal" to the Western-developed-organized-etc.-etc. or can we maybe start understanding it as a mirror modernization, as the crooked limb of Modernity or its bad twin?

- Instead of considering it an absence of logic, can we accept informality as a logic in itself, with controls and hierarchies and orders and struggles and changes and growths?

- If we want to emphasize the historical breach and inequality of modernizing processes, why not simply try to analyze and describe how unequal types of development are crashing up against each other and invading each other as a result of globalization, instead of making it an Us vs. Them thing? There is no Us vs. Them. We've all been smeared.

- Beyond aesthetics, isn't informality ugly (scary even) because it reveals too much about our dirty, insecure, two-faced Modern selves?

- How about picturing an enhanced version of the informal? One that isn't primitive or picturesque or exotic, or at least not in its entirety. One that is inextricably related to whatever happens elsewhere: interconnected, active (sometimes aggressive), efficient and significant in its own right. One that we need not pity or fix, but understand.

Would anyone like to take a shot?

(Photo by Pablo León de la Barra. José Rojas at House of Gaga in Mexico City. From the Centre for the Aesthetic Revoluction).


Glenn Edley said...


We, that is us as individuals, will never be able to keep up with everything. By the time you learn something it's old. Picking things / technologies that work for you, and being open and agile enough to change when something that is better, faster and easier to use comes along, is the only way that feels right to me.

As an email marketer it amazes me how many people don't know what email marketing is. They haven't needed to know until now when they are looking beyond TV and print advertising. Yet I have heard and read people saying Twitter will kill email marketing. RSS was going to do the same. It hasn't. I feel strongly this attitude you talk about is endemic among those who don't know who they are, what they stand for or what they want. If you know these things, you know what are the most effective tools for you, at any given time.

You have several questions and points in this great post that I cannot hope to answer in a few paragraphs. However, I feel positive it will make people think and I hope we will see some fantastic comments from people taking on one point or another.

Deb Brown said...

I'm one of those middle aged people you refer to.

I'm actually just enjoying the ride, informally. I'm not analyzing. I'm reading, sharing and going with the flow.

I'm told Twitter is dead. News to me. It's very much alive in my world. I use it pretty informally though. I actually talk to people, have conversations, solve world problems and make new connections.

I heard that Facebook was on its way out. More news to me. But, then (drumroll - you know its coming) I use it pretty informally. I let my 'friends' know what's happening in my world, events I'm planning and places I'm going.

I think I've lived long enough to take things way more informally. I can analyze and preach with the best of 'em - but I don't want to. I want to hear what you have to say. Sometimes I have heard it before. But what joy and pleasure when I have not!

There are other questions you asked - and Glenn was on the money when he said couldn't hope to answer them in a few paragraphs - neither can I.

I do look forward to the discourse on the topic (and I'm happy you're not talking to yourself on this one).

Keenan said...

Informality is the result of the destruction of social rules. Formality was/is the expectation of behaviors with in a certain setting or with a certain person(s). Formality embraces and validates social hierarchy. Formality is about control and consistency. Informality dismisses expectations. Informality is not predictable, it doesn't control and it's not hierarchical. Informality flattens, thereby providing an easier more honest view into the people, environment and things we see. Informality increases the speed of learning.

Mario Ballesteros said...

I'm pretty surprised at the type of response this post has drawn, totally unexpected. It's interesting to see it picked up by social media and web 2.0 sites.

Glenn: I think this whole issue goes beyond fads and gadgets. A lot has to do with the unsettling nature of the present (more unsettling than many of us were used to, I guess, at least those of us who enjoyed a relative tranquility and stability — as deceiving as it appears to have been. This insecurity might be hightened by the immediacy induced and demanded by our communication technologies. It's not so much that Twitter will kill e-mail and the next thing will kill Twitter and so on and so forth, but that we don't really stop and think of what the potential or the use or the purpose of everything is and that we don't even understand or think about many of the implications of the technologies and the new social modes that are quickly becoming a fundamental part of our everyday lives. Effective tools for what? And why? That is a bigger concern I think than what is "next".

Deb: By no means did I want to imply that if your 50 you have no business concerning yourself with new techonologies. I'm only wondering why we don't see the vast majority of young people who are the most naturally related to them and used to them also thinking about them and analyzing them. It is frustrating sometimes because I think many people that have grown up and have been trained with a different set of standards and tools are somehow trying to tell us what things mean when they clearly have a very different position than we do. I mean, I'm 28 and already I feel I'm not a "native", I still remember school with no Wikipedia and life with no Internet. I don't see how people that are 20 or 30 years older than me can claim any authority on matters that are only beggining to really unfold. They can add to the debate, speculate, propose, like the rest of us, but I don't see how they can claim themselves to be experts.

By the way, I'm intrigued with this interpretation of yours of "informality". I think this is a great notion of how "informality" is so much more complex and pervasive than what it is usually taken for (3rd world street markets, basically). I think this is something I would like to further chew on and maybe take up in a next post.

Keenan: I don't know about informality being the "destruction of rules". I see it more as an alternative set of rules. True, they might be harder to read, but they're there. Informality is also about social rules and hierarchies and codes (and expectations, most definitely). At least one type of informality we're talking about here, or at least I had in mind (informal urban economies and political organizations). I think you had something more in mind like what Deb mentioned, this less explored phenomenon of connected, pervasive, informality. Again, something interesting to consider...

Thanks for all the comments guys.

Glenn Edley said...

I agree Mario. It does go beyond fads and gadgets. We don't stop and think of "why?" often enough.
An example of this is the first few tweets of the majority of Twitter users saying; "Not sure what/why I'm doing here but ..."

Personally I check things out for awhile, see what they are being used for and figure out what I can use it for. If it fits me/spikemail, and is easy to use, I will embrace it.

However, I know very successful people who don't use the internet and have heard of one guy who doesn't even email. "Old school" get on the phone and talk works every time.

Interesting comments. Thank you for coming back to them.

Unknown said...

I think that the relationship between the pervasive nature of information technology and informality (whether the minutiae of social interactions or broad economic, social, housing forces or a combination of everything in between)is growing stronger by the minute. SMS, email , twitter, all of these methods of connection are strengthening the ability of individuals to connect with one another but most importantly these means allow individuals to dictate the terms within which these connections happen. The formal(ish) avenues of hardware manufacturers, service providers, and websites are laying the groundwork for all kinds of informal possibilities.

Formality and Informality are absolutely interconnected, parallel processes. In many cases, formality seems to intentionally create gaps for informality to fill. In other cases, formal government structures lack capacity forcing informal processes to spring into action. Informality should not be understood as a hodge-podge of random acts but as an agglomeration of social needs and desires. Informality follows a logic dictated by those living in a given place at a given time.

Thus, it is essential to not lose sight of the fact that "processes" and "structures" are being enacted and shaped by individuals; actual people trying to figure out how to meet their needs. Needs take the shape of reelection, of monetary gain, of shelter, of personal connection.