When Circuit Breaker1 was officially announced in Singapore, one of the first things I remember doing was to set up a Discord channel (affectionately called stay home party) for my friends and I2. This was done out of a need for a new space to gather and mingle. And as the campus and all public spaces were closing, we turned to a space we could all access from the (dis)comfort of our homes, a digital space.

That was 5 months ago. Singapore is now in Phase II of Circuit Breaker with an uncertainty of when it will ever end. The discord channel is still alive, having seen us through 2 semesters, our graduation, and the beginnings of careers (or grad school). We are, for the most part, still largely stuck at home. Public places are wrought with safety measures that add friction in various doses, culminating towards the act of going out being a weary experience of alienation and surveillance. Our public spaces have become hostile spaces that limit and discourage our presence. While understandably done so in response to a pandemic, certainly it comes with a cost. Perhaps, when we factor our very human ability to adapt and tolerate, there is a thought more concerning: What is the cost when this becomes our new normal?

Out-Of-Body Living

As humans, we don’t deal well with isolation and anxiety. For solace, we turn to digital spaces to find community and resume a somewhat normalcy of life. However, in these digital spaces, while providing a relieving connectedness, undeniably leaves us feeling corporeally detached. Digital space has yet to assimilate our full physical being and all its communicative richness into the digital space. We are left to assume disembodied voices and floating heads. Our headspace is thrown into the clouds while our bodies sit useless before our desks. We are only allowed to be ourselves in part, and experience commune only in part3.

Aurality Monopoly

I had my first class of grad school happen in Zoom. The lecturer asks everyone to kindly mute themselves. It is his time to speak, and by the power of the mute button, the aurality of the digital space is fully his. After all, in this space, aurality is only bestowed to one. Sound is not a function of proximity in this collapsed space. We are all mouth-to-ear all at once, at the same time. Your whispers are heard by all. Classroom chatter, typically an ambient feature, is amped up and made destructive. Forgivably, the only option is to establish an aural monopoly.

Out of respect, but still hungry for discussion, conversations begin to ensue on the chat box, students type away in silence. The linearity of the chatbox soon forces a mild race of getting a reply in time to a message at risk of just disappearing off the screen.

Our text bubbles eventually distracts the professor anyway and he joins in the discussion. Naturally, we take turns voicing our thoughts. There is an awkward moment when two decide to unmute at the same time.

Side Note: For now, within the Zoom space, we are given screen equity in the sense that our video frames occupy the same amount of space. Interestingly, I saw a tweet regarding a Zoom feature request for the provision of screen space based on hierarchy.

Privileged Space

Even before the pandemic, I have had a growing suspicion that public spaces are becoming rarer. Looking back on all my pre-pandemic social outings, they were predominantly occasions of lunches and dinners. Is there something wrong with eating alone? Hardly! All I really want is a place to sit and have a chat, and as it is, restaurants and cafes have become the most convenient of places for that, with all its hallmarks: good lighting, good seating, good ambience, air-conditioning. However, all these places involve spending money. Even when I head to a Starbucks to get some readings done, do I really need the coffee? Arguably. But honestly, I’m paying the $6 to rent a seat in the coffeeshop.

I am describing an increasing commodification of public space. To be able to loiter and keep still in public has become a privilege of wealth. I cannot remember how many times as a Secondary school student, we would head to the open space at the roof of the mall to hang out, only to be chased by security. Students kept coming back to that space because it was what they could afford.

Side Note: I always go back to the seating space that surrounds the vortex fountain at Changi Jewel when pondering on this.

Serendipity Structures

When a friend pointed out that void decks in Singapore are shrinking, and how the familiar cemented bare spaces we knew were being replaced by stand-alone spaces, I shared a sense of pity felt in this article. These stand-alone spaces, designed as intentional spaces, are hardly replacing void decks. It is a hostile takeover, a denouncement of the values of the void deck. The replacement of the void deck with corridor-connected stand-alone spaces enforces a way of navigation that bears worrying similarity to the way we navigate our current pandemic city, where ‘urbanity has transformed into a constellation of “essential” spaces’4. Everything in between is hostile and non-cohesive, they serve only to get you from destination to destination. By design, they shove you along.

Public spaces can be designed as serendipity structures, supporting chance encounters and moments of serendipity. Void decks are one of the most visible serendipity structures in Singapore. For cities that pride themselves for the provision of serendipity while increasingly making public spaces more particular, it draws pity to see a serendipity structure torn down.

Side Note: You could also say that it bears similarity to the way we navigate the web. We go from address to address. Even searching on Google, we have a destination in mind, Google is the address book. Digital spaces that support serendipity feel like a thing of the 2000s, where online community spaces really peaked, like Club Penguin, Habbo Hotel, and Second Life. Perhaps VRChat is the closest thing we have right now to those glory days.


  1. The term which the Singapore government affectionately uses to describe what is essentially a city lockdown. 

  2. The channel was set up on 6th April, three days after the official announcement. 

  3. This disembodiment and sense of debilitation isn’t new to the digital phenomenon, we see this in online dating culture as well, but perhaps that is a post for another time. 

  4. The full quote is beautiful. ‘Our households have become spaceships, while urbanity has transformed into a constellation of “essential” places.’ (source