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August 17, 2011

Losing Our Sense of Place

Has technology and the way we travel actually removed the wonder of said travel from our lives? Have GPS systems affected our ability to drive in ways that we haven't really thought about?

There's a fascinating article in the latest edition of The New Atlantis, a "journal of technology and society," that addresses this point. "GPS and the End of the Road," by Ari N. Schulman, is quite long (over 13,000 words!), but it's well worth reading.

(Thanks to iTech News Net)

I'm not usually one for reading long articles on the Internet, but every time I thought "eh, I'll move on," I found something in the article that hooked me back in. It's a fascinating look at not just technology and navigation, but just who we are and how we relate to where we are.

Schulman starts by talking about how humanity has always been seeking out new experiences, and how that continually changes over time as we conquer what we already have around us.
Each generation reimagines the allure of the unknown world, and reinvents the means of discovering it. The greatest journeyer, Odysseus, traveled by ship, beset by monsters and the whims of the gods, seeking not new lands or conquests but only to return home. Later wayfarers yearned for odysseys of their own; but since the Old World was by then pretty well tamed and charted, the old gods vanquished and the dragons fought back to the corners of the maps, they set out on horseback in shining armor, seeking after a quest for questing’s sake. The finest of these knights errant, Don Quixote, readily acknowledged that he’d taken to the road because it was better than the inn.

The Age of Exploration that drew Europe to the Americas made the world seem, at least at first, bigger and more mysterious. The ensuing conquests and technical innovations seemed to open new frontiers just as quickly as they closed old ones: the exploration and charting of the unknown continent gave way to pioneers and prospectors; the taming of the West gave way to settlers. Even once the Americas had been crisscrossed with rails and paved roads, a new age of discovery was opened — the age of personal discovery celebrated in the mythology of Kerouac and the open road. The horizon of the unknown is constantly shifting, but not necessarily receding.
Navigation technology has changed all that, almost removing the human element of getting somewhere. Before, drivers had to be good at both driving and navigating; a wrong turn could actually take you to a new experience you never would have suspected. We used to navigate by example rather than specific directions. "Take a left on Mulberry street. That's the one with the Red Robin on the corner."

Now, we are impersonally told "in 300 feet, turn left on Mulberry street." The driver doesn't even have to think any more. He just has to react.

At first, Schulman seems to be heading toward the inevitable: eventually, we won't need to be driving at all. When you have GPS enabled cars, and cars that can detect upcoming obstacles and move around them, including some cars that don't even need drivers at all (Google has those already as part of their street-mapping program), what's to stop us from building cars that can literally drive us wherever we want to go without our input, making it so we can fully engage online with our social media buddies, or just sit back and listen to music. Or maybe even sleep?

When I first heard about the article from somebody on National Review's "The Corner" , the wonder of that possibility is what sold me on going to read the article. Self-driven cars connected to the Internet, that can scan the street around you and recommend a place to eat? That would be so cool.

(Thanks to The Summa)

But Schulman doesn't stop there. Instead of treating it as a wonder, he uses it to lead into just what this might be costing us. He talks about both The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Jack Kerouac's On the Road, both classic examples of travel, quitting civilization and going out on your own in order to find something, anything of interest. Where adventure awaits, or at the very least something away from what you already know.

Is that possible now?
Why, then, is it so hard to imagine some form of this journeying as occurring today? In part it is because of that homogenization of place enabled by the open road — the lessening of its difference and so its significance. More fundamentally it is because the mode of travel on the rise today is antithetical to the mode found in On the Road and its predecessors. Rather than being filled with adventure and the possibilities of freedom, the GPS-enabled, location-aware adventures of Sal and Dean or Huck and Jim somehow sound dreary before they have begun, filled with anticlimax, boredom, and restlessness. How can this be, when what these technologies seem to promise is a way of freshly opening up the world?
Technology may be robbing people of the wonder of travel, making it a matter of getting somewhere specific instead of just going out and experiencing what life, and someplace different, has to offer. The point of travel in modern times seems to be the destination instead of the journey itself.

And that's kind of sad.

(Thanks to Gettysburg College)

When you go sightseeing, are you experiencing much different than if you've seen tons of pictures of said monument? You can now take virtual tours of art galleries and famous places online, almost walking in a tourist's footsteps without even leaving your computer. So if you finally do go see something, like the Grand Canyon in Schulman's article, do you get that same sense of satisfaction you would have felt if you had no idea what you were going to see ahead of time?
What Percy and these other writers are getting at is that 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 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.
But technology can deaden that freshness.
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, which become less and less experiences of those places we go.
We seem to have lost that sense of wonder that travel used to bring to humans, that exploration of the unknown. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and On the Road are really no longer possible, unless you make a conscious effort to do so. As Schulman says, "Where Percy, in another essay, describes Huck and Jim as 'reposing ... all hope in what may lie around the bend,' we can hardly imagine them doing so when what lies around the bend is displayed at all times on a screen before them."

I fully admit that I'm one of these people who has lost the travel bug. When I first moved out here, the wife (not the wife at the time) and I drove from Chicago to Seattle, a route I had never been. While our destination was Seattle, we took things slow and saw some sights. We stopped at the Little Big Horn battlefield and drove around the Black Hills of South Dakota. But even then, it was semi-planned. I wanted to stop at the battlefield. The Black Hills was fun because that was largely unplanned. We didn't know what we were getting.

Now, the idea of driving seems kind of dreary, in a way. Long days, cramped seats, weird drivers, it can be a hassle.

But I kind of miss that. And may have to rectify that someday.

It's not enough to "see" a place, though. We don't get that location awareness, that sense of "place," just by seeing something. We need to experience it, to have it affect us rather than just looking at it and saying "yeah, that's neat."
In short, finding our way around engages us in the way we need to snap us out of the alienation facing Percy’s tourist at the Grand Canyon, and to form instead the basis for a connection with the place: a purposive encounter with it whereby we can “get at it.” For López de Cárdenas, and the natives who came before him, it was impossible for the canyon to be a mere sight because it was a tremendous obstacle; a thing that must be conquered to pass; a possible site for injury and death, or for shelter, food, and water; an opportunity for riches, prospect, and conflict. Its features — a towering crag, a boulder, a valley, a thick of brush, the river at its core — were apprehended in terms of passability and possibility. Only relatively recently has it even become possible to regard the Grand Canyon as merely a sight — to stumble groggy off a tour bus right at the edge, without any sense of having traversed the distance there, and be faced with the challenge of perceiving the thing in itself.
It's that sense of experiencing a new place, rather than just seeing it, that we've lost.

Maybe one day we can find it again, that urge to explore, with enough effort.

If this has intrigued you at all, I encourage you to go read the whole article. You will be glad you did.


  1. Dare I say this? I found the guy you mentioned who wrote the article to be pompous. Yep, I really did. I've never understood people with that mindset, who insist on sucking the life, enjoyment and unique pleasure out of everything. Perhaps that wasn't his goal, but when I read the excerpts of his you included in your article, that was the result.

    I enjoy traveling, although I don't get a chance to do as much as I would prefer. I find the newer navigational devices to be a wonderful help, and I don't find that they rob the travel experience of any brightness. In fact, for me, they add to the experience, particularly when they malfunction and kick out absurdly humorous directions.

    I guess it's all in the perspective that you choose to implement on a given day, filled with travel or not. Technology can only take from, or muffle, deaden or make less than any experience if we ALLOW it to do so. I think the fact that we continue to grow in technology is a wondrous thing, and one to be celebrated. And you know, if people dislike these new navigational critters to the point they feel using them is an imposition that negates their travel experience, the easy choice is to not use them. Pretty simple! Choose to adopt the old using the map form of navigation. :)

    (*Dawnie rant over*)

  2. Pompous, I will definitely give you, though I still found myself fascinated by it anyway. :) I found the article much longer than it had to be, though it did hold my attention.

    And it resulted in one of my longer posts, so I'm happy you read it. :)

    I will actually have to become a traveler before I can put to the test how much I really agree with it, or with you. I've never had that sense of wonder traveling. Hopefully one day I'll be able to change that.

    I do appreciate you taking the time to read it, though, even if you disagreed. Nobody else did. *grumble*

    (I love Dawnie rants!)

  3. I don't like GPS systems that much. I take pride in finding my way around. That being said, the GPS came in handy when we lived in Europe. I just hated the woman's voice on our GPS. She sounded like a two pack a day smoker.

  4. LOL Knotty. That would tend to get on one's nerves after a while, I would think.


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