New York is plastered with notices – some of them carrying rather obvious instructions. It's a new kind of visual pollution.
New York is one of the world's most iconic cities and has played both supporting and leading roles in countless films and TV programmes. For untold millions around the world raised on a diet of American pop culture, its landmarks and place names – the skyscraping Manhattan skyline, the Statue of Liberty, yellow cabs, Fifth Avenue, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Greenwich Village – are instantly recognisable.
But wandering around the city's straightforward grid system, the visitor is struck by the dizzying profusion of everyday icons, in the form of road signs, public notices and advertisements which tell their own story about this metropolis and provide an interesting sign of our times.
I don't believe I have ever seen as much street advertising as I have in the Big Apple. Everywhere you turn, you are bombarded by messages urging you to buy, spend and acquire.
Although I admire the irresistible energy and culture which has drawn an old college friend of mine to make New York his home for most of his adult life, I find this intense commercialisation something of a turn off.
The ultimate manifestation of this is to be found on Times Square. This rectangular slice of Manhattan can best be described as psychedelic and navigating it is akin to what I imagine tripping on LSD would be like.
The casual stroller is bombarded with giant images of television anchors, sporting events, musicals, not to mention Titan-sized M&Ms climbing the Empire State building in King Kong fashion. Our first jet-lagged day felt as if we were sleep-walking through a surreal advertiser's dream.
Of course, New York, established as New Amsterdam by the Dutch West India Company in the 17th century, has always regarded commerce as its lifeblood. Viewed from the top of the Rockefeller Centre, the city's most prized freedom – judging by the brightly lit Manhattan skyline and the lonely Statue of Liberty on a little island illuminated by her dim torch – is the freedom to trade.
To my mind, New York is an extreme illustration of a challenge facing many other places: what are the psychological effects of intensive advertising and how far can matters go before we begin to consider advertising to be an intrusion on our privacy or excessive psychological manipulation?
Today's society is concerned about second-hand tobacco smoke and the effects of pollution, but what about the health ramifications of this kind of visual pollution? Does it cause stress? Can this litany of aspirational messages cause people to feel bad about themselves and their lives?
New York (like many other American cities) also seeks to provide its inhabitants with a comprehensive instruction manual on how to use and interact with the city: a sort of Big Apple for dummies. And, judging by the lack of confidence in the average citizen's intelligence reflected in some of these signs, “dummies” is an apt description.
For instance, on one toilet door hangs the enlightening notice: “Occupied when door is locked.” Now, who would've thought that a locked bog door means someone is taking a dump inside?
The New York subway system is plastered with rules and edicts spelling out in minute detail what commuters and travellers may and may not do. One poster lists no fewer than 18 punishable violations.
These range from the obvious, such as failing to pay the proper fee, to those that go beyond the call of obtuseness, such as telling passengers they are not allowed to lie down. The most bizarre is the insistence that passengers may not ride a scooter in the subway, which makes you wonder how many New Yorkers actually whiz down the stairs and along the platform on a Vespa or, for that matter, even own a scooter.
This rash of notices has not gone unremarked. The Museum of Modern Art's gift shop sells a sign which reads: “Thank you for noticing this new notice. Your noting it has been noted.”
One public notice has had me completely stumped since my first visit to the US some years ago. The landing form visitor must fill out asks: “Do you seek to enter the US to engage in … subversive or terrorist activities?”
Does that mean that, besides the regular tourist visa, there is a special terrorist visa or something? Does it allow you to enter the entire US or just that exclusive beachside terrorist resort in Guantánamo?
Personally, I'd be very interested in seeing some statistics on how many people actually ticked the “yes” box for this question and what happened to them afterwards. Of course, I was tempted to do just that, you know, for a laugh. But I stayed my hand recalling a warning from the wise that bureaucracy does not have a sense of humour.
Now call me a poor judge of character, but I doubt any would-be attacker would be quite so forthcoming about the purpose of their visit. Naturally, bureaucracies the world over are hardly famed for their attachment to reality, but there seems to be something a little extra here.
This could be an extreme manifestation of the US's litigation-obsessed culture. Perhaps the designer of this form was aiming to avoid a lawsuit by victims of future attacks by creating a fallback position in which the government could claim that it wasn't their fault because the attackers lied on their immigration form.
And there are plenty of other manifestations of this litigation mentality. Ever since Liebeck vs McDonald's, you can't enjoy a warm beverage in the US – where mugs and cups seem to be on their way to extinction – without the rather self-evident warning, “caution: extremely hot”, staring up at you from the lid of your coffee.
While there is a case for being as clear as possible, this dumbed-down, comprehensive signposting of daily life is insulting to people's intelligence. Could the distrust these signs reveal in people's common sense lead them to adopt a less responsible attitude in public spaces? Could advertiser's ceaseless, unrelenting sensory bombardment stress pedestrians out too much, leading to some kind of pavement, or sidewalk, rage? How do signs and billboards affect the aesthetics of our cities?
Despite growing recognition of graffiti as urban art, it is widely seen as a defacement of our public spaces. A debate is needed on how much advertising and other signage we should tolerate in our urban areas. New York and other cities need a movement to reclaim the streets from that other breed of vandals in sharp suits.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 16 April 2008.