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Location unawareness

August 09, 2011

As our cars, phones, and computers become more location-aware, do we become less location-aware? What would going "on the road" have meant for Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty if their cars had been outfitted with sat-nav screens? Those are among the questions Ari Schulman tackles in his searching essay GPS and the End of the Road in the latest issue of The New Atlantis.

Here's a taste:

Just as important as what we see in the world is how we go about seeing it. We are adept at identifying points of interest, but pay scant attention to the importance of our approaches to exploring them; our efforts to facilitate the experience of place often end up being self-defeating. What [Walker] Percy’s strategies aim to do, in part, is to put the traveler into a state of willingness and hunger to encounter the world as it is, to discover the great sights with the freshness, the newness, that is so much of what we seek from them. Alain de Botton also describes this attitude as the solution to the guidebook problem, and identifies it as the mode of receptivity.

Practices like geocaching and geotagging rely on this receptivity. Geocaching asks the user to be an active participant in seeking, and to seek something unknown. Viewing geotagged photography may impel us to go forth into the world and seek with our own eyes what the images present to us, thus claiming them in some way for ourselves. It is a tricky balance: as always, photographs, especially when so readily viewed at the very places they were taken, hold the potential to substitute for rather than deepen our own awareness. But these practices at least give some idea as to how location-based technologies can encourage us to orient ourselves to the world in its primary, phenomenal sense — as a realm of places.

But GPS navigation, in its present form, seems to do quite the opposite: it dulls our receptivity to our surroundings by granting us the supposed luxury of not having to pay attention to them at all. In travel facilitated by “location awareness,” we begin to encounter places not by attending to what they present to us, but by bringing our expectations to them, and demanding that they perform for us as advertised. In traveling through “augmented reality,” even the need for places to perform begins to fade, as our openness to the world gives way to the desire to paper over it entirely. It is an admission of our seeming distrust in places to be sufficiently interesting on their own. But in attempting to find the most valuable places and secure the greatest value from them, the places themselves become increasingly irrelevant to our experiences ... The technology that is meant to facilitate travel deadens the spirit of discovery that draws us to the experience — moreover, it traduces that spirit: dis-covery, the removal of the things that paper over our vision so as to reveal the truth of the world, gives way to covering the world over deliberately, and calling that an enhanced revelation.

Read it.


Excellent points. The GPS is an anti-derive device and as such it keeps us away from the true meaning of our journeys. Coincidentally, yesterday this site posted a similar essay, about how playing GTA 4 with the onscreen minimap disabled makes it a better and deeper game.

Posted by: Alexandre Mandarino [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 9, 2011 11:38 AM

The article is here, by the way:


Posted by: Alexandre Mandarino [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 9, 2011 11:39 AM

Interesting article. Thanks.

Posted by: Nick Carr [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 9, 2011 01:24 PM

"As our cars, ..."

Cars? What is this newfangled technology "car" of which you speak? Rushing through the land at speeds the human neurological system was never designed to endure, it may be changing our brains, our very selves! Can we ever be said to truly appreciate a landscape while encased in a metal shell, cut off from Nature in a MACHINE, oh woe, a contrivance of glass, metal, and plastic, so remote from the organics of humanity. "The technology that is meant to facilitate travel deadens the spirit of discovery ..."

See the problem?

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 9, 2011 03:20 PM

Cars certainly changed our relationship to nature and our environment (or created a lack thereof). Cars facilitate separation of people within the same geographical area as you don't have to actually interact with people around you in your climate-controlled bubble. Cars allow us to get everywhere without ever *really* being anywhere. Cars create suburbs, and the neglected urban areas. I think it's safe to say the rampant inequality, disconnect between the rich and poor and lack of empathy is grounded, at least partly, in America's car-based society.

And then let's take the last few nuggets of interaction with the outside world, those few drive-by glimpses out car windows, and just shut them off completely with Angry Birds and gadget pr0n feeds.

Great idea.

Posted by: Postfutures.blogspot.com [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 9, 2011 05:39 PM

If you'd bothered to read the article, Seth, you would have seen that Schulman deals with your issue at length. Nick

Posted by: Nick Carr [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 9, 2011 05:46 PM

Nick, I know that fogeyism will not be humbled by the well-known argument that, basically, it's fogeyism. I'm not so arrogant as to think any professional pundit would ever say something along the lines of "I've never considered that.". I know there are obvious replies. For example, OUR stuff was good, YOUR stuff is BAD, err, I mean "He drives, that is, as if the car were his own body -- and so achieves a remarkable though commonplace feat of human instrumentality." Behold the praise of the mechanical cyborg, the meshing of steel and flesh into a brave new self! But not what the Kids Today Are Doing - "In this sense, the GPS navigation device is quite the opposite of an extension of our minds; ..."

The point is that any sort of story can be spun, and it's useful to be very skeptical when one sees the same whine in new bottle. If you spin the story in reverse, and it makes just as much sense, that's a good indicator it's nonsense.

I really shouldn't do this, as there's no gain for me in pointing out the folly. I should let the tech con-men rebut it, as it's their pundit-slot.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 9, 2011 07:37 PM

People will make their own value judgments as to what's good and what's bad (it's always a mix); first, though, you need to try to see things for what they are, which means seeing how they are different from other things as well as how they are similar. A car without GPS, a car with GPS, a self-driving car: there are important differences among the three just as there are important similarities. To gloss over the differences, for whatever reason, is simply to turn off one's critical faculties.

Posted by: Nick Carr [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 9, 2011 07:46 PM


I don't know much about critical facilities, so I'll just press on to this little issue. In March 2006, Donald A. Norman, author of Emotional Design, and other books, delivered a lecture to iSchool at Berkeley entitled Cautious Cars, Cranky Kitchens, Demanding Devices.

It would be useful to compare Don Norman's ideas with those expressed by Ari Schulman in this month's New Atlantis. If nothing else, ensure you get to hear Norman's critical comment of swarm logic in cars, to the engineers who came up with it. Very funny. BoH.

Podcast available here:

Posted by: Designcomment.blogspot.com [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 9, 2011 11:25 PM

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