Google Maps: Drifting Through Post-Humanism and Away From Psychogeography? | Prerna Anilkumar

Prerna Anilkumar

If you are reading this on a screen you are already a cyborg.

You are already a Post-human.

(Take a minute and absorb that in.)

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Who is a Post-human?

Any possible being whose basic capacities radically exceed those of average humans.  This in turn unambiguously distances that being from the category of a ‘human’.

There have been multiple discourses built around post-humanism, however, this piece deals with only one particular strand of that discourse put forth by Donna Haraway in 1984 in the ‘Cyborg Manifesto’ where she introduces the concept of ‘cyborg as an ontology’. According to her, the cyborg is not about sophisticated looking machines taking over the world à la I-robot. It is a way of being. An annihilation of boundaries. Not just physical boundaries. All sorts of boundaries.

Between the organic and the artificial.

The human and the machine.

The living and the non-living.

And these boundaries have already been breached. Our biological-neural processes have become off loaded onto non-biological aids. This process of ‘Scaffolding’ (tools and technologies becoming extensions of our brains and our bodies) has already happened. To name just a few: wristwatches, cellphones, laptops, cameras and hard drives. These objects have completely changed our perception time, our experience of time, our memories and our ways of ‘remembering the things past’. They have almost replaced our internal biological clocks and neural processes governing the formation of memories.

It is this indistinguishable permeability between the two worlds (human and machine) that affirms the statement at the beginning. We have all already become cyborgs because of how deeply and subtly technology has become a part of our lives and replaced our biological-neurological processes. Its invisibility signifies its power.

With the advent of GPS and Google maps (examples of how our sense of place is scaffolded onto a technological aid), one of the many ways in which this post-humanism is being manifested is in our experience of the city-space and geography. This piece then explores the concept of the cyborg and the post-human and its relationship with urban space, drawing its strands from the Situationist discourse of ‘psychogeography’.

Psychogeography engages with how a particular space or geographical location affects the individuals’ movements. Not just external physical movements. But also internal movements of emotions and feelings. Carved in the 1950s by the Letterists and Situationists who were the true exiles of the system in their refusal of the consolations of art or literature, psychogeography could be seen as an extension of their playful and anarchic defiance of the capitalist system and ‘commodity fetishism’. Some modes of this vibrant resistance were: cutting maps, rearranging maps, using maps of a different city to navigate your own and going on unplanned/unmapped journeys.

Psychogeography becomes important in our current context as tools like the GPS and Google maps (enhanced exponentially by the Uber phenomenon) have profoundly disconnected us from the raw physicality of the cities we inhabit.  We find it almost impossible to navigate without these tools. And nothing rings truer today than the 20th century Debordian claim that cities are inherently designed to accommodate the capitalist scheme inducing an increasing sale of automobiles. The need to travel from location X to location Y is exploited by this scheme quite exquisitely. Thus, our increasing inability to navigate and find way in our own cities should be seen as making the spectacle of the capitalist infiltration even richer.

We have become post-human in the ways we experience our cities.

The renaissance painters were used to representing the city from a celestial perspective which back then a single pedestrian or inhabitant of the city was incapable of seeing. With Google maps and other informational leaps we get to experience this celestial eye representing the “all seeing power”.

They make the city readable.

They make the city an optical artefact.

The ordinary inhabitants of the city live “down below” who can’t really read this exotic visibility of the city. They create it but can’t read it. Their knowledge of the city is like the lovers’ knowledge of each other’s bodies. There is a metaphorical city underneath the planned and the readable city.

This metaphorical city is what Rebecca Solnit beautifully touches in her book ‘Wanderlust: A History of Walking’ (Walking as an act of liberation). And it finds its roots in the theory of ‘Derive’, another extension of psychogeography, as discussed by the Situationists.

Derive: rapidly passing through different terrains and ambiences with an acute sense of their fleeting-ness.

Having roots in Baudelaire’s flaneur, it proclaims a detachment from all motivations of completing a journey. It also declares a sweet surrender to the city. And letting its contours guide your movement. Each neighbourhood has its own micro-climate, each street its own vortex, each space its own fissure. All of these subtleties lead one on, nudging an entry somewhere, and an exit somewhere else.

This absolute surrender and letting go ceases in the current posthuman-cyborgian-capitalistic setup of the urban city. Instead of experiencing the city as fleeting, random, subversive and heterogeneous we experience a predetermined homogeneous machine.

225px-la_beaute_est_dans_la_rue
Beauty is in the street: A Situationist slogan

Guy Debord curates some elements of ‘Derive’ in the ‘Introduction to a critique of urban geography’:

The first and most prominent of these is the activity of walking. The wanderer, the stroller, the flaneur and the stalker… psychogeography also demonstrates a playful sense of provocation and trickery…seeks to overcome the processes of ‘banalisation’ by which the everyday experience of our surroundings becomes one of drab monotony…a perception of the city as a site of mystery…

Wandering alone in the city then becomes an act of resistance against the banalisation and a way to reclaim the city’s lost mystery. Our restricted movement in the places we inhabit are a sign of our “socialised spatial existence” and directly proportional to the degree of our personal sense of freedom. All our paths have become so pathetically limited in our restless rush to reach a destination and complete a task. We barely set foot alone to go somewhere without any external aid to tell us where we are. There is a need to breathe new life into psychogeography and rekindle a joyful discovery of our cities and through that get back in touch with our own selves because the city is where our bodies become inscribed.

Psychologically.

Socially.

Sexually.

Technologically.


Prerna Anilkumar is a student of law at Gujarat National Law University. She can be reached at prerna.anilkumar@gmail.com.

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