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Re: <nettime> Life on Autopilot?
John Hopkins on Sun, 14 Feb 2016 05:48:36 +0100 (CET)

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Re: <nettime> Life on Autopilot?

Hallo Brian -- (sending this a third time to nettime and cc'ing it to you as it seems to be delayed by the moderators that are letting other things through...)

I had read about the Amurikan tourist in Iceland, and your notes, and thought to re-reflect/meditate on that from a personal/historical Icelandic context:

Naming of location is an old social process. It is an association of place with event (long- or short-term). Event may be natural or social. The naming process was once local, embodied, idiosyncratic, or personal. Local means that the naming is contextualized by a specific human experience of the place. Embodied means that the naming was propagated by verbal expression, and stored in human memory. Idiosyncratic in that it was the inverse of global — it was understood by and carried situated meaning for an individual or small grouping of people *who lived there*.

Located story-telling:

Physical signage is perhaps the first step in externalizing the naming process. As social structures become more and more global (de-localized), naming structures have evolved that are more and more 'universal'. (Exactly the same process as any kind of socially-driven standardization in engineering, language, and such). GPS, as a numeric cataloging of discrete points on a (socially) abstracted mathematical surface is a specific form of representation. Whydo we struggle to associate events with those places? Are we continuing the inexorable alienation process that separates our social self from non-standardize be-ing? Is there a praxis that can bring these two systems together without the seeming inevitable separation promulgated by a forced deference to standardization?

When I lived in Iceland, I quickly grew frustrated with the local cultural system for locating ones-self in the landscape. Coming from a long experience of DMA (Defense Mapping Agency)-based mapping and location activities — USGS topo orienteering, geological and geophysical mapping, remote sensing (low-altitude to satellite-based) — the process of reading, comprehending, and makingthe leap from the ‘coordinated’ map to the territory was a learned but very comfortable intuitive process. Approximating distance, direction, and azimuth vectorsfrom paper to topography was practiced. Watching the stars and sun and making accurate estimations of location and time based on those observations wasalso standard. Iceland presented a radically different paradigm of location.

When I would come back to town after a weekend hiking trip, the occasion might arise that I would need to describe where I had been. A typical description would be:

"You know the Hellisheidi road?"


"Well about four kilometers past the turnoff to Thorlákshöfn we turned due north and went along a valley on the west flank of a low ridge (the western flank of the mid-Atlantic Ridge!) for 6 kilometers and then crossed a small river and followed it west about a kilometer to the top of a valley leading southeast towards Hvergerdi."

This kind description, one which would have been enough to locate one quite accurately in the (contemporary socio-cultural) landscape/orienteering schema of the Sonoran Desert, never elicited much of a response. It was not until after some years of traveling in the remote landscapes of Iceland with native friends that I realized I could simply say that I had gone to Grensdalur. That localized name precisely located a particular place in what is often a disorienting fractal landscape. And indeed, the more I traveled in the country, the more I came to understand that virtually every location — creek, molehill, ridge, wash, cinder cone, hot spring, forested area, and (ancient or present) farm hada specific name. The more local the people one traveled with, the more precise the located naming (where each name itself represented a more-or-less comprehensive story that ‘mapped’ the human occupation of and interaction with thatlocation). The names came out of embedded human understanding of that exact place atthat exact time (or over a period of time).

One key to this anecdote is that this system cannot be simulated except at a loss. The loss comes from the separation by greater degrees of mediation between the embodied experience of the place and the means of social transferenceof the experience that ‘names’ it. It would seem that the embodied, lived experience is the primary source of placement, but equally important is the propagationmethod that locks a nam(e)ing / story to the place in the collective memory.

Using a newer system will not allow a utopian ‘return’ to another, older, system. They exist in parallel to some degree, and they are different paradigms and ultimately different living socio-cultural practices.

As to GPS:

"The global positioning system is all about self-reliance and helping people find their own way." -- from a NYT article shilling GPS units for Christmas in 2007

Wow, where to start with that small bit of promotional techno-utopianism.I mean, c’mon, self-reliance? When one is in fact relying exclusively on a huge military technology system. I equate the words autonomy and self-reliance. Though these are not strictly, from an etymological point-of-view, the same, they infer the same independence from outside influence or outside allocation of resources, for example. How can a battery-driven device, manufactured through an intricate global web of resource-consumption that reads data from military satellites, increase self-reliance? The web of dependencies is both wide and deep. Can the consumer repair one of these devices if they malfunction? Can the consumer easily determine if there is some systemic failure in accuracy (or in ground-truth for that matter)? Or modify it productively to fulfill idiosyncratic individual needs? Garmin can’t answer these questions because, as a company, they are already so deep in the web that the edges of and more importantly, the creator of the web, the MIC, remains all but invisible. There is hardly a base-line measure of human autonomy visible on the horizon. That baseline has long since sunk beyond the limits of the knowable world, beyond the purview of the entire spectrum of techno-fetish seekers and Luddites all together. Even from the intoxicating heights that the early adopters seekto attain, nothing is to be seen except the endless techno-social plains littered with the detritus of war, consumption, and excess.

The dependencies are also about substituting direct individual sensory input from the natural environment (i.e., terrain, atmospheric, infrastructural evidences) for inputs from this (GPS-based) selective (exclusive, limited, biased) infrastructure/system. A dominant system says that its information is superior to any other. It systemically devalues other observational information and its sources.

How can one be autonomous when the dependencies are so deep? It is a relative issue. Clearly anyone existing in a social system becomes more-or-less subject to the protocols of that system. It is a sliding scale, however, and individuals can choose to which degrees that they participate in the system and to what extent they reject involvement. Social pressures to adapt the idiosyncratic self to the (monolithic) system exist in a tremendous range of forms. From covert to overt, from soft to hard, from suggestive to compelling, from punishment to reward. It is a sliding scale, though, so that there is a responsive range of choices that one might make which places the self in relation to the system.

Iceland pops into mind again, when I was implementing a 'new media' and photo program at the National Art Academy in R'vík in the early-mid-90s, where, with a user-base of under 30K people, Iceland demanded a translated OS from Apple *and* Microsoft. Terms were collectively translated or 'determined' by public discussion -- I had instances like that happen in my classes, where, teaching in English, and mentioning a technical photographic term, the class would erupt in an animated conversation in Icelandic as to the correct translation of the term. Their cultural autonomy lay (lies) in a collective collaborative resistance to the imposition of 'out-land-ish' protocols.

In the case of GPS, yes, it is true that a paper map is simply another form of social construct (likely) created by a subset of the military-industrial complex. But trace back, for a moment, to the originary situation. This is where the self engages the other face-to-face, listening to a verbal report of 'what’s out there'. Trust is a determining factor in this relation, knowledge of the Other is critical in setting a metric of reliability and range of interpretation of their observations of the world. Sliding back up the technological scale gradually removes the immediacy of this relation and the pathway that trust must follow to be realized. What is it to trust ones life with the output of a thousand anonymous others. What does autonomy mean when any minute mistake by one of those thousands may create a glitch which kills?

Every time I board a plane, do I think of this? Nah, the baseline is gone. I place my faith and trust in Boeing/Airbus. Besides, I don’t know where I’m going anyway.


Do you use GPS on your phone? You are using a protocol established and defined by the US DOD to monitor the global movement of people and things (weapons, goods, consumables, ...). Use Windows, Apple? You are using a system of technologies of which a large percentage are originally sourced in the protocols and standards of the Cold War and propagated by imperial capitalism.

Maps? I’ve got maps. Yeah, those paper things -- maps at a variety of scales and vintages and of a variety of places: reductive subsets of the world. No GPS: I’m not interested in Department of Defense satellite connections. Yes, I know there will be places I may end up that I don’t have a map of. Traveling beyond the edge of a map is a good way of encountering the unknown. There is signage, and signs that can help mitigate the risk, but otherwise, first verging on and then leaping out over the edge of the map is a transcendent experience.

"A map is not the territory," this should be the mantra repeated constantly by every voice navigation system, that and "Embrace the new!"

And, in closing, I'm quite sure that the (amused) Icelandic response to the ignorant Amurikan tourist's 'mistake' lies with their incredulity that the tourist couldn't read the difference in spelling. One letter off in Icelandic and you change the meaning of the world! No culture that I know of treats language with an equivalent 'seriousness' -- even in humor.


Pertinent links:

Landmaelingar Îslands:


Dr. John Hopkins, BSc, MFA, PhD
grounded on a granite batholith
twitter:  {AT} neoscenes

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