Is GPS-navigation turning us into ‘Men without Qualities’?

The Dutch Daily NRC Handelsblad published a highly interesting interview with retiring law-professor Egbert Dommering. He enters the current debate about new media, personal development and cultural authority by expressing his fear that the dominance of cultural systems for information retrieving like Google or GPS-Navigation will turn us all into ‘Men without Qualities’ (after the Robert Musil book). Are we becoming blank subjects, servile obedient to the instructions that our computers conjure up for us? Turn left at the next intersection, Vote for party X in the elections, try (buy) this book?

Dommering fears that rather than building personalities with an extended intellectual and cultural substance, the current media system encourages us to rely on algorithms like that of Google, Satelite Navigation etc to provide us with the right information when we think we need it. This might be handy, but will we still be able to paint a bigger picture out of all these fragmented tidbits. Will we still be able to evaluate them critically? Can we still place the facts into a bigger cultural context? GPS-Naviagtion tells us exactly how we can get somewhere. But do we still know where we are? What is the history or culture of the places we are travelling through, what issues are at stake here? Dommering fears that we might loose the interest in and capabilitie to answere these questions.

This is a relevant issue and Dommering takes a McLuhanist view: these recommendations, search and discovery systems make us dependent on their logic and numb our interest in a classic Bildungs-ideal. Rather than showing interest in the world around us, we prefer (and are encourgad) to broadcast out our own identity on our blogs, streams, etc.

Yet for others it is the very emergence of these systems that can produce the contextuality that Dommering fears that we are loosing. When combined, TomTom with Google Maps, Wikipedia, Encylopedia Brittanica, local news media, and oral history projects could form the ultimate contextuality generating system, right? Concepts such as ‘the long here’ or ‘deep space’ have been developped to make us aware of the broad, extended and layered contexts of any place that we might find ourselves in.

So what should locative designers or theoreticians take from this discussion? Is it an attitudinal problem, where people get used to not look beyond the first 5 results that Google produces on any search? And is that attitude promoted by the technology itself or the way it is presented? Is it an algorithm-cum-interface problem, where the strength of an algorithm plus the design of the interface might promote deeper understandings of local contexts? Can we design locative media in such a way to promote a richer experience of place, rather than just getting us where we want to go as efficienly as possible?

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  1. I agree, our modern culture has become to dependent on technology and as a result we just look for the easiest option available.

    However, in the case of GPS Navigation I find it very usefull as I work on the road and have to drive through very unfamiliar cities without this help of technology I would be very late for meetings!

    Using GPS in the city is the only time I use my GPS. When I am in the countryside the GPS gets turned off and thrown in the boot!

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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)