Strategies for subverting the tyranny of the corporate map

I submitted a version of the below for a session at CryptoRave, which, due to COVID, has been, at best, postponed to the second half of 2020. I referenced the concept in online panel, Being Social, which I was part of, and which is hosted by Deveron Projects. The text was also submitted to Streetnotes, a biannual peer-reviewed journal for the interdisciplinary study of the city, its lifeways and social relations.
A summarised version of this was presented at the Locative Media Summer School.

Particularly since the introduction of smart phones, we have come to rely on ever fewer, ever more unified, tools to guide us, both in familiar and new environments. We have been handing over agency to tools that tell us what to see, what to do, and where to go.

This document discusses a philosophical background for, as well as tools to, subverting this external control, putting some agency for finding our way back in the hands of the individual, you.

Tyranny

Remember the last time you were in a city you’re not overly familiar with? Did you use a mobile app to tell you where to go? Where to eat? What to see?

Chances are that if two individuals are roughly in the same place, but at different times, and ask the same app roughly the same question, the result will be exactly the same; you’re in Paris, looking for a Thai restaurant? Whether you or I ask Google, we’ll get pretty much served the same list. Worse, because the number of unique content providers is very limited, it doesn’t even matter that much which app you use, as many source their information from a very small list of providers.

What then happens? Both of us will probably pick the ‘best’ Thai restaurant from the list, the first, and end up in exactly the same place, following exactly the same route to get there. 

With a world of information in our pockets, the variety of what is offered to us and what we seek out is actually getting smaller.

The result of this ‘winner takes all’ framework, where the most popular destinations only get more popular, eventually resulting in over-tourism, is the engendering of an attitude where visitors build up a longing desire for a unique, individualistic, experience, being denied this by the very tools they use to look for this unique experience, because the nature of the tools we accept as being at our disposal, can not, by design, provide that unique experience; their creators need, their investors demand, to provide a blanket solution with the widest reach, optimising financial turnover.

‘Personalisation’ of the results to our queries attempt to go some way towards providing us individualised responses. However, compartmentalisation of personal data, limited classification of available results, and an undefined match between what we like, why we like it, and what we experience, means that personalisation in travel offers very limited venues for optimisation. Imagine; you might like the specific way a particular dish at that Thai restaurant near your home is prepared. What data would need to be captured for an automated service to point you to a restaurant in an alien city where that particular dish is prepared in a similar way? Particularly if, perhaps, the restaurant itself is not well-rated, out of the way, or not even Thai?

Of course, this information could be captured, but, requiring rich and up-to-date user input, simply isn’t captured and is less likely to ever be captured. Though, with the potential advent of embedded technologies automatically recording ranges of personalised experiences, this could indeed change.

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The commercialisation of society

Back in the 1950s, a bunch of mostly French leftist intellectuals, calling themselves The Situationist International, or Situationists, realised how the public space was being increasingly commercialised. 

After the Second World War, with the increasing cultural influence of the United States in Europe, many of the big Western European cities were taking cues from the US in how to model the publicly accessible spheres of their cities. 

While moving through public space, inhabitants were, more and more, actively directed in how to interact with the environment; go here, look there, buy this, etc. 

The Situationists were ahead of their time in their critique of capitalist society; They rejected the idea that capitalism’s apparent successes, like technological advancement, increased income, even increased leisure, could ever outweigh the social dysfunction and degradation of everyday life that it simultaneously facilitated.

The Situationists recognised society being in the service of the concept of the Spectacle, the reign of the market, as well as the increased tendency towards the expression and mediation of social relations through objects, as opposed to individual expression through directly lived experiences, or the first-hand fulfilment of authentic desires.

In fact, this late-stage capitalism is not organised around the creation of luxury, happiness, or freedom, but, for the system, production, and for the vast majority of its inhabitants, survival.

Creating counter narratives

As a response to the commercialisation of society, the Situationists sought to counter the Spectacle though the construction of situations, moments of life deliberately created for the purpose of reawakening and pursuing authentic desires, experiencing the feeling of life, even adventure.

Specifically, the Situationists came up with the concept of psychogeography, roughly the way a place makes you feel, and the dérive, the French word for ‘drift’, where the participant lets herself be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.

To revolt against the commercialisation of public space, and to counter the corporate influence on our lived experience, we need methods that put the locus of the decision-making process back in our own hands, as opposed to us being lead by algorithms that remove our experience and impressions from the environment we inhabit.

Then, by taking control of our own experience, we actualise ‘place’ as something that is dynamic, its meaning depending on the individual and her experience, not as a static notion that is defined by external actors we have no control over. 

Marxist Geographer Doreen Massey calls this ‘sense of place’, where the meaning of a ‘place’ is unique to the individual.

As an aside, though the ideas of the Situationists are often used in the context of exploration and travel, they were designed as frameworks for subversion, and other areas also benefit. In the early 2000s, Precarias a la Deriva, and Grup de Lesbianes Feministes, both in Spain, used psychogeographic ideas to investigate the role of unpaid female labour, and, more generally, of the sexualization of space, moving away from the traditionally more male-dominated theory.

Practical tools

Aware of the apparent contradiction, we can use digital tools, smartphones, to circumvent the tyranny of the corporate map, though digital tools are not a requirement.

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The dérive 

The idea of the dérive, conceptualised in the 1950s by Guy Debord, the most prominent member of the Situationist International, at its core is about participants letting themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Best done in small groups, these would, Debord argued, lead to the creation of what he called ‘situations’.

Formalising this idea has centred around the creation of series of loosely directive ‘task cards’, nudging participants in particular modes of behaviour.

The mobile app Dérive app is a popular implementation of this, presenting the user with task cards that have a loose connection with the locale of the participant, like “Find shade”, “Follow a dog walker”, “Ask someone for their favourite building”, “Walk as fast as you can until you detect a public restroom”, etc.

Guerrilla tourism

Back in 1990 Joel Henry founded LaTourEx, LAboratoire de TOURisme EXpérimental (Laboratory of Experimental Travel) in Strasbourg. Acknowledging connections to the Situationists, Fluxus and other experimental groupings, he coined the concept of experimental travel, with ideas like taking a (physical) map of a city and to ‘conquer K2’, K2 being, of course, one of the most difficult mountains to climb, but also a particular square on the map.

Lonely Planet co-opted the concept of experimental travel in their 2005 book The Lonely Planet guide to Experimental Travel, followed by the 2018 Everyday Adventures.
Curiously, both feel, for their heavy curation and hand-holding, more like the antithesis of experimental travel, but can work well for inspiration and exploration.

Phil Smith (‘Crab Man’) has done something similar in his books on Counter Tourism, though, there, limiting himself to British Heritage sites. As part of his work with Wrights & Sites, and their series of ‘Misguides’, he also co-wrote a series of texts with instructions to make familiar places unfamiliar and to inspire the reader to subvert the city through walking.

Jason D. Luger, in his article “The Living vs. the dead in Singapore: contesting the authoritarian tourist city” (in Protest and Resistance in the Tourist City) goes for a more generally used term, describing guerrilla tourism as “going off the pathway”, constructing alternative narratives through the act of transgressing boundaries and walking, contesting and reshaping the hegemony of consumption-led urban development. 

As Luger talks about Singapore, ‘his’ city is also an authoritarian city, but, in many ways, perhaps every modern western city has become authoritarian, meaning the acts of guerrilla tourism he encountered in Singapore are increasingly appropriate in every city.

More recently, a German collective, Happy Tourists, consisting of Christian Haid, Soazic Guezennec and Lukas Staudinger, tries to formalise guerrilla tours in Berlin, though they seem to hold the middle between being a ‘serious’ outfit and an art installation. Nevertheless, they state their mission is “to bring serendipity, chaos and disorder into tourism to trigger critical thinking and power shifts into the tourism industry”.

Travel like a reporter

Nikhil Sonnad at Quartz, suggested last year, that in order to get the most out of your next trip, to travel like a reporter, which he explains as deeply focusing on one topic or theme; For your destination, pick a ‘lens’, subject or topic, and focus on that topic as if you’re obsessive-compulsive, as if you’re required to write a thesis on the topic once you’ve returned from your destination.

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Because you will be seeing the things you want to see, not the things everyone “must see”, this will likely mean that there will be fewer tourists at your chosen destinations, while you probably also will be visiting places you otherwise would not have visited yourself.

Even interests that might appear main stream, like World Heritage Sites, become quite obscure in the ‘long tail’, with currently a total of 1121 of them.

Another term that’s sometimes used for this type of discovery is slow travel, where a traveller seeks to immerse themselves in a place they visit, taking their time to learn about the location, along with cultures and offbeat experiences on offer, instead of simply checking-off another place from their bucket list.

Add friction

The appeal of the travel-oriented tools many of us are inclined to use, Google Maps, Foursquare, Tripadvisor, Yelp!, etc., is that they make our lives easy. They take away friction, but as a consequence give its users a remarkably similar experience. Not only do we get presented with the same Thai restaurant in Paris, we also get told to go there by the same route.

Part of the joy is in the journey. Perhaps, then, don’t take that Uber, take public transport. Don’t fly, go overland. Don’t pull out that map all the time, go by what feels right and take your time, more closely observing your surroundings as you move forward, engendering a sense of discovery.

A few years ago, Kompl tried to achieve this sense of discovery by taking away information, instead of providing as much as possible. The app showed you what was around you, but required you to find individual places yourself. In addition, it would not disclose the best, say, Thai restaurant, but just a few good enough ones.
An additional quirk was that Kompl allowed you to explore one city through the physical, geographical, data of another.

Kompl is no longer active, but a more mainstream app like maps.me provides a compass-only view that can achieve a similar result, as it requires you to decide what route to take, as opposed to relying on algorithmic software, optimising your route.

Listen

We’re not much used to listening to our surroundings. The growing field of ‘sound walking’ changes this, nudging you to use more of your senses to give meaning to the environment you find yourself in.

A yearly ‘sound walking’ festival, Sound Walk September, brings this experience to a broader audience and apps like Echoes, Soundtrails, and Locosonic provide access to a broad range of sound walks throughout the world.

What links these strategies?

What connects all these ‘tools’? 

They allow the user to take a step back, engendering mindfulness, nudging the user to rely more on their own capacities as opposed to handing over agency and trusting technology. They bring the user more into the moment, by requiring the user to take responsibility, while making her more aware.

Being more aware of the possibilities at your disposal as you move through public space and making more active decisions, means taking back agency over your own actions. 

You don’t of course need the particular tools described above but, more importantly, you really don’t need the tyranny of the corporate map.

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