Orit Halpern's book, Beautiful Data, suggests that we live not so much
in worlds of pure simulation a la Jean Baudrillard (or Philip K. Dick),
but instead, in a fascinated relation with flows of signals whose
referential nature does not stop them from forming a "new landscape" for
the viewer/user. In other words, the data is ostensibly about the world,
but it upstages that world, becoming the primary object with which we
interact (and thereby impoverishing the rest of experience). Something
similar is suggested by Karin Knorr Cetina with her notion of
"postsocial relations" carried on with the always-unfolding temporal
objects that typically appear on screens, notably in the realm of
finance. The stream of flow-objects constitutes a world, one you can
dive into, wrestle with, and from which - in the case of financial
traders - you dream of emerging victorious.
Both these theories have a lot to say about the consumer-oriented GPS
navigation systems discussed in the New York Times piece below. I'd
argue that these systems arose as a pragmatic answer to the crisis of
cognitive mapping brought on by capitalist globalization. Confused about
the sprawling labyrinth that used to be your home town - or maybe, about
the gleaming new metropolis where you've had to seek another life? No
problem, just type in the destination and hit the button. Now the
street, and indeed the city itself, become secondary reflections of the
one true path streaming in over the phone. Everyone loves satellite
mapping, yours truly included, but the ambivalence attaching to all
dominant social functions can easily take over, indeed it already has.
Life on autopilot is the condition where data takes the wheel,
navigating your pathway through a stream of signals from which you never
Here's a thought: Kybernetes, the cybernetic steersman, is the new, far
more sophisticated figure replacing the dreamworld that Guy Debord used
to call "the spectacle."
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Ignore the GPS. That Ocean Is Not a Road.
Earlier this month, Noel Santillan, an American tourist in Iceland,
directed the GPS unit in his rental car to guide him from Keflavik
International Airport to a hotel in nearby Reykjavik. Many hours and
more than 250 icy miles later, he pulled over in Siglufjordur, a fishing
village on the outskirts of the Arctic Circle. Mr. Santillan, a
28-year-old retail marketer from New Jersey, became an unlikely
celebrity after Icelandic news media trumpeted his accidental excursion.
Mr. Santillan shouldn't be blamed for following directions. Siglufjordur
has a road called Laugarvegur, the word Mr. Santillan -- accurately
copying the spelling from his hotel booking confirmation -- entered in
lieu of Laugavegur, a major thoroughfare in Reykjavik. The real mystery
is why he persisted, ignoring road signs indicating that he was driving
away from Iceland's capital. According to this newspaper, Mr. Santillan
apparently explained that he was very tired after his flight and had
"put his faith in the GPS."
Faith is a concept that often enters the accounts of GPS-induced
mishaps. "It kept saying it would navigate us a road," said a Japanese
tourist in Australia who, while attempting to reach North Stradbroke
Island, drove into the Pacific Ocean. A man in West Yorkshire, England,
who took his BMW off-road and nearly over a cliff, told authorities that
his GPS "kept insisting the path was a road." In perhaps the most
infamous incident, a woman in Belgium asked GPS to take her to a
destination less than two hours away. Two days later, she turned up in
These episodes naturally inspire incredulity, if not outright mockery.
After a couple of Swedes mistakenly followed their GPS to the city of
Carpi (when they meant to visit Capri), an Italian tourism official
dryly noted to the BBC that "Capri is an island. They did not even
wonder why they didn't cross any bridge or take any boat." An Upper West
Side blogger's account of the man who interpreted "turn here" to mean
onto a stairway in Riverside Park was headlined "GPS, Brain Fail Driver."
But some end tragically -- like the tale of the couple who ignored "Road
Closed" signs and plunged off a bridge in Indiana last year. Disastrous
incidents involving drivers following disused roads and disappearing
into remote areas of Death Valley in California became so common that
park rangers gave them a name: "death by GPS." Last October, a tourist
was shot to death in Brazil after GPS led her and her husband down the
wrong street and into a notorious drug area.
If we're being honest, it's not that hard to imagine doing something
similar ourselves. Most of us use GPS as a crutch while driving through
unfamiliar terrain, tuning out and letting that soothing voice do the
dirty work of navigating. Since the explosive rise of in-car navigation
systems around 10 years ago, several studies have demonstrated
empirically what we already know instinctively. Cornell researchers who
analyzed the behavior of drivers using GPS found drivers "detached" from
the "environments that surround them." Their conclusion: "GPS eliminated
much of the need to pay attention."
As a driving tool, GPS is not so much a new technology as it is an
apotheosis. For almost as long as automobiles have existed, people have
tried to develop auto-navigation technologies. In the early 20th
century, products like the Jones Live-Map Meter and the Chadwick Road
Guide used complex mechanical systems connected to a car's wheels or
odometer to provide specialized directions. In the 1960s and '70s, Japan
and the United States experimented with networks of beacons attached to
centralized computers that let drivers transmit their route and receive
We seem driven (so to speak) to transform cars, conveyances that show us
the world, into machines that also see the world for us.
A consequence is a possible diminution of our "cognitive map," a term
introduced in 1948 by the psychologist Edward Tolman of the University
of California, Berkeley. In a groundbreaking paper, Dr. Tolman analyzed
several laboratory experiments involving rats and mazes. He argued that
rats had the ability to develop not only cognitive "strip maps" --
simple conceptions of the spatial relationship between two points -- but
also more comprehensive cognitive maps that encompassed the entire maze.
Could society's embrace of GPS be eroding our cognitive maps? For Julia
Frankenstein, a psychologist at the University of Freiburg's Center for
Cognitive Science, the danger of GPS is that "we are not forced to
remember or process the information -- as it is permanently ‘at hand,'
we need not think or decide for ourselves." She has written that we "see
the way from A to Z, but we don't see the landmarks along the way." In
this sense, "developing a cognitive map from this reduced information is
a bit like trying to get an entire musical piece from a few notes." GPS
abets a strip-map level of orientation with the world.
There is evidence that one's cognitive map can deteriorate. A widely
reported study published in 2006 demonstrated that the brains of London
taxi drivers have larger than average amounts of gray matter in the area
responsible for complex spatial relations. Brain scans of retired taxi
drivers suggested that the volume of gray matter in those areas also
decreases when that part of the brain is no longer being used as
frequently. "I think it's possible that if you went to someone doing a
lot of active navigation, but just relying on GPS," Hugo Spiers, one of
the authors of the taxi study, hypothesized to me, "you'd actually get a
reduction in that area."
For Dr. Tolman, the cognitive map was a fluid metaphor with myriad
applications. He identified with his rats. Like them, a scientist runs
the maze, turning strip maps into comprehensive maps -- increasingly
accurate models of the "great God-given maze which is our human world,"
as he put it. The countless examples of "displaced aggression" he saw in
that maze -- "the poor Southern whites, who take it out on the Negros,"
"we psychologists who criticize all other departments," "Americans who
criticize the Russians and the Russians who criticize us" -- were all,
to some degree, examples of strip-map comprehension, a blinkered view
that failed to comprehend the big picture. "What in the name of Heaven
and Psychology can we do about it?" he wrote. "My only answer is to
preach again the virtues of reason -- of, that is, broad cognitive maps."
GPS is just one more way for us strip-map the world, receding into our
automotive cocoons as we run the maze. Maybe we should be grateful when,
now and then, they give us a broader view of it -- even if by accident.
Mr. Santillan's response to his misbegotten journey was the right one.
When he reached Siglufjordur, he exited his car, marveled at the scenery
and decided to stay awhile. Reykjavik could wait.
Greg Milner is the author of the forthcoming book "Pinpoint: How GPS Is
Changing Technology, Culture and Our Minds."
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