GPS and the Death of Serendipity

by Yolanta Siu


Satellite view of Berkeley.

I am known for having no sense of direction. It wasn’t until recently that I started using GPS, when a friend and I got lost in San Francisco. He pulled out his phone and brought up a map of the city (complete with a flashing red dot to show our position), and we were there in no time.

On your phone or in your car, GPS gets you from Point A to Point B with the least amount of traveling (usually). Since the 1970s, GPS technology has been used by a variety of businesses, agencies, and individuals to keep track of vehicles, animals, and people and to collect data. It has increased our understanding of the world by turning things that are hard to track into quantifiable information and giving us the ability to travel the world without fear of getting lost. But, as with all technology, there is another side.

Last semester, I took my first design studio at the University of California, Berkeley, headed by Professor Chip Sullivan. One of his lectures was concerned with how we perceive the environment. When we take our time to stroll, the landscape becomes familiar, because we are able to stop and take in everything it has to offer. On the other hand, when we ride on a train or drive in a car, we can see new places and travel farther, but the landscape becomes a blur because we cannot stop at every point that piques our interest.

GPS gives people the confidence to travel to new places, but it also makes them focus solely on the final destination, not the journey. We follow the dot on our phone’s screen or the voice through our speakers, never straying from the directions we are given (unless we happen to miss a turn). When we go to new places without the help of a GPS, our eyes wander more, looking not only for our destination but also for anything that looks interesting, because there is no voice to tell us to stay on course. Certainly, we are free to stray off the course even with GPS directions, but when the voice tells us to turn right in a hundred meters, we are likely to follow it instead of pursuing a different path.

I remember a time after class when I had nothing to do. I walked around Berkeley, far into the hills, past the border of campus. What I found on my one-hour hike was a beautiful area, full of interesting architecture and styles that I wouldn't have noticed if my goal were to reach the top of the hill. When we have a clear target or destination in front of us, the journey becomes secondary. I believe there is something beautiful lost when our only goal is to reach the target destination and we miss the unexpected jewels along the way.


View of the UC Berkeley campus from Panoramic Way, a road less traveled.

GPS follows a pattern for other technologies. It has increased our familiarity with the world, but at the same time, has distanced us from it. We are able to travel to new places, but we no longer notice the little details embedded in the landscape. We pursue the expected while ignoring the unexpected, which may or may not be just as important. When I walked to Weston Havens House with my studio class this semester, I was blown away by the beauty of the architecture and the view from the house. However, the most memorable part was not spending time on the balcony, but the journey up the hill: the dirt road, the endless stairs, and the quaint wooden houses one wouldn't expect to find so close to downtown Berkeley.

Technology is a double-edged sword. GPS can help us get to our destinations with more efficiency, but it can also take away chances for discovering the unexpected. It is important to keep a balance — to use GPS and similar technologies to help us arrive on time, and to leave it at home when we can help it.

Yolanta Siu is a Polis intern.

Credits: Satellite image of Berkeley from GoogleEarth. Photo by Yolanta Siu.

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4 comments:

  1. i agree. thank you for articulating this so well. as useful as gps is, i prefer wandering around without staring at a screen or depending on directions from a computer voice. well, gps does give me a better sense of where i am, and helps me find things i didn't know were there. there's just no substitute for unexpected discoveries.

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  2. I have often thought about this issue.. there is a toungue-in-cheek solution called the serendipitor, that picks random routes instead of the shortest distance from point A to B: http://serendipitor.net/site/

    The technological advance is the kind of thing that can't be undone. Even if you stop using GPS, you will retain the knowledge of routes from the time you used it to a certain degree, and even if you managed to forget all of that, many of the people around you would still be using GPS, so the general atmosphere of knowledge and awareness of our surroundings seems irreversible. there are some funny ways to play with what we've got though and I think the application above is one such example.

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  3. I forgot to mention another great artist grappling with GPS is Esther Polak from the Netherlands: http://www.estherpolak.nl/

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  4. Those are great, Nick! Thanks for posting them.

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