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 emerge.

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.
Greg Milner

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 Croatia.

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 route information.

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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