Designing for Locative Media: seamless or seamful experiences?

During the New Year’s holidays I was taking a short vacation in the southern part of Holland. The bungalow we rented provided some proto-locative media: a cheaply printed leaflet featuring rasterized b&w pictures of local attractions with local companies advertising their services (rent-a-bike, visit-our-sauna) in the margins. One of them was a specialty butcher’s shop in a nearby town, about 20 km away. Since I wanted to cook a fancy new year’s dinner I gave them a call, ordered a nice cut of lamb and drove off, trusting that my gps-navigation would get me there seamlessly. However, about a mile or so before I reached my destination, my GPS crashed, and I found myself driving around an unknown suburb without any clou about where I was or where I was going to. All of a sudden the city was full of seams.


It reminded me of the Urban Computing and its Discontents-pamphlet that I had read just a few days before by Adam Greenfield and Mark Shepard in which they were discussing our increasing reliance on technology:

One of the things I think does happen, though, is that the ability to findone’s way around independently of the embedded environmental cues begins to atrophy. This is just that favorite McLuhan quote of mine being worked out in detail: “Every extension is also an amputation.” I can very easily see traveling to any but the most familiar and local destinations becoming a matter of the cues we’re already familiar with from in-car GPS systems, or Yahoo! driving directions, or Hopstop, merely rendered ambient: “Turn left HERE.” “Get on THIS TRAIN.” What happens when you’ve got a generation of people who are used to following these ambient cues around, and the cues go away? Is the city still legible, in the Lynchian sense, to those people? Or have they lost the ability to discern the locational and navigational cues that have been part of the way we make cities practically since time out of mind? I simply don’t know.  

It also made me a think of a discussion we had at the Locative Media conference in Siegen where we discussed similar issues with Katherine Willis. In her opinion the GPS could turn the experience of driving through the city into an experience that was similar to taking the subway. You start at a certain point, and only when TomTom says you are at your destination, does one take one’s surroundings into account again. Inbetween, we are mostly paying attention to the screen telling us to turn left at the roundabout.We went on discussing what this could mean for urban culture in general, and later I had to think of Jane Jacobs idea of ‘social seams’. According to her a city needs these seams – places where different social worlds meet or at least mingle – so that people can build up a certain ‘public familiarity’ with each other, that lays the foundation for trust between citizens. So what if our navigation software takes away all the seams? Willis suggested that locative media that provide seamful experiences could thus be more important than the services that bring us the seamless city.


In the Architecture and Situated Technologies pamphlet Mark Shepard stated he liked the idea of using a GPS to get lost, rather than to get seamlessy to his destination. In a way I enjoyed unexpetedly getting lost while on my way to the butcher’s shop. In another way it was also frustrating, and perhaps even scary, thanks to all the loitering local youth setting of heavy fireworks. So what does good design mean for locative media: to be as seamless as possible? Or is it indeed for the good of ourselves and our urban culture necessary that every once in while something unexpected happens, that our technology weaves some extra seames into our daily experience?

Martijn de Waal

Martijn de Waal (1972) is a writer, researcher and strategist, working in the field of digital media and (urban) culture. He is currently a senior researcher at the Play & Civic Media group at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences.

He has worked with and for various clients and organizations such as The Netherlands Architecture Institute, Open Society Foundation, The Architectural League of New York, Lift@Home, Kitchen Budapest, The Mondriaan Foundation and Dutch Public Broadcasting.

Formerly he was part of the New Media, Public Sphere and Urban Culture research group at the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Groningen, and connected to the department of mediastudies at the University of Amsterdam. In 2009 he was a visiting scholar at MIT’s Center for Future Civic Media.

His most recent book are The City as Interface. How Digital Media Are Changing the City (NAi010 Publishers, 2014) and De Platformsamenleving (The Platform Society), co-authored with Jose van Dijck en Thomas Poell (Amsterdam University Press, 2016)