Technologies of Space and the Tyranny of Convenience

A friend and I recently discussed changes in our experience of space that have been brought on by technological developments. The conversation started when I mentioned Nigel Thrift’s suggestion that recent technological developments have made our movement through space freer and more improvisational. Thrift’s argument is that whereas we previously travelled pre-determined paths from point A to point B, which were mapped out on a grid, we now travel – or can travel – in much more improvisational ways due to technological developments like the GPS. The computer revolution has created a background environment of almost continual calculation. Since these calculations occur in real time, they allow for fluid movement. Space is adapted to the self as it moves through the world such that one is free to move however and wherever one wants without the fear of getting lost. This background of calculation, therefore, allows for increased freedom and improvisation rather than, as one might expect, mechanistic rigidity. 

My friend, however, pointed out that while this may be true in theory, it almost never actually plays out that way. Typically, people use a device like a GPS by inputting a destination and then slavishly following the route-line as given. Prior to the GPS, in contrast, one had to improvise routes to one’s destination. You might look at a map, but you would then have to approximate the route into real space. You might take detours or find alternatives or try a variety of routes to the destination. My husband did this recently in a city that we had previously lived in and returned to visit. He roughly knew his way to the airport but, without a GPS, he did not know the precise and most direct route. He improvised his way there using a combination of memory, signs, and spatial experiments. The GPS-less drive seems to in fact be MORE improvisational under certain circumstances.

This situation suggests that improvisation may be something slightly different than is sometimes presented to us. Rather than a kind of possibility-for-all-things that allows for purposeless movement freed from all constraints, improvisation occurs within the context of a purpose or objective. One improvises a route to somewhere, making it up as one goes along. This is precisely what a GPS does not allow. There may be aimless wandering but there is no making anything up.

My friend and I came to the conclusion that this sort of technological innovation, rather than making us more free or improvisational, may have merely introduced a different sort of restriction to our movements. While technologies like GPS might in theory produce an improvisational space (we could turn on the GPS and drive around aimlessly without the fear of getting lost), no one really does this. The GPS has a different sort of power over us, restricts in a different sort of way. It’s not the control of an external force but encourages an inclination we already have.

Currently, I am calling this the tyranny of convenience. If all space becomes more or less homogeneous as presented by the GPS (always an extension of the self), then perhaps there is never any reason to deviate from one’s course. If there is no reason to deviate from one’s course, one will not choose to do so because it takes more work and time and thought to do so. In other words, we need a reason to improvise before we will choose to do it because improvisation is hard work. It is very inconvenient. If there is no reason to improvise, we will choose the convenient every time and the GPS, despite appearances, makes non-improvisation the most convenient option.

So, this is a sort of power over us that is not the traditional concept of external constraint but a restriction that cajoles us into certain behaviors to which we are already inclined, even if our over-reliance on them is not ultimately in our best interest. Improvisation, creativity, problem solving – I consider these things that are good for persons and for communities and their suppression is not in our best interest. But these are things that are not good for current orders of power; they threaten those orders because they propose alternatives. So, where improvisation is being suppressed, hegemonic power is being served. If improvisation is being suppressed with spatial technologies that appear to give is more freedom, then the way we think about power needs to change.

This sort of power – the harnessing of innate inclinations to encourage easy choices that aren’t necessarily in our best interests – is no less a tool of totalitarianism or hegemony. But our idea of things like totalitarianism and hegemony often (though not always – I can think of some notable exceptions in dystopian fiction) involve an external force compelling us to do that which we would not choose. To see the exercise of hegemonic power even in the context of autonomy is to say that our own humanity, our own inclinations, are being weaponized against us. This is rather more depressing and a good deal more difficult than typical visions of “speaking truth to power,” since to escape hegemony would require escaping certain of our own inclinations, rather than some “other.”

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