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Contemporary GPS technology would seem to revive a set of late 19th and early 20th century concerns which are related to questions of time, space and abstraction. These concerns are proto-modernist and are perhaps best understood with reference to the status of objectivity and subjectivity in the measurement of experience. As such, global positioning technology presents a novel platform for questioning the biases and assumptions inherent in our common sense understanding of spatiotemporal phenomena. Furthermore, when seen as a mass-produced object of utility a GPS device has ideological connotations. In this sense it politicises space and time.
The irony of GPS technology is that it relies upon a form of abstraction (in the subtractive sense) to give both the illusion of solidity and an authority of voice. The GPS subtracts novelty and chooses to call it 'noise'.
Global positioning is an inherently unstable practice. Depending upon the degree of precision of a GPS device and the current environmental conditions our position is approximated to within a number of feet. The accuracy of the measurement varies with atmospheric and geographical conditions - presenting complications within even a single sample set. When viewing our position, we are at best viewing an approximation - a point that is quickly obfuscated by a cleanly plotted line.
This is an issue with any sampling technology. Writing in 1911, Henri Bergson was troubled by the notion of frame rate in early cinematic apparatus. He was of the opinion that cinema gave the illusion of movement by petrifying time - the time of the cinema was a poor substitute for our subjective experience - a poor substitute for time as it is lived. Central to Bergson's concern with this early form of data capture was the notion that any frame rate could in principle be increased ad infinitum. As such, any attempt at measuring time would result in something being lost. To measure time was to simplify and transform its nature. Measurement became a process of petrification - a reduction of time to space.
In relation to a more contemporary vocabulary, Bergson was addressing the problem of the veridical sample - a problem of resolution. That is to say, given any sampling rate, there is always the possibility of increase. This is applicable to screen resolution, sound resolution and the measurement of any other data type. This problem shows itself both at the point of input/capture and also at the point of display.
What this seems to call into question is our tendency to atomise phenomena. The pixel (datum) is a unit of atomisation. As such GPS applies principles of atomisation to a spatiotemporal flux. It reduces, filters, quantifies and immobilises - resulting in a uniform series of points. It first projects a global Euclidean grid and then coaxes us inside.
There has been much recent commentary concerning a new affinity with landscape that is promoted by GPS technologies. The argument runs that networked technologies had little affinity with geographical space and were promoting something more intangible - venerating the collapse of geographical boundaries. GPS technology has been lauded for introducing a new focus upon landscape and revitalising an appreciation of place. The distopic side of this coin is that it is by virtue of this technology our landscapes are being mediated - along with our experiences of them.
The politics of the GPS prioritises stasis and fixity. The politics of experience prioritises movement and flux.
In the first third of the 20th century a number of artistic movements were responding to the paradoxes of measured and experienced time. In the visual arts we can trace this through Cubism, Fluxus, Surrealism, Expressionism and Futurism. In literature we have Proust, Kafka and the stream of consciousness novel. Each of these movements in their own way was responding to the question of the spatiotemporal sample.
An atomised space and time is more susceptible to commodification and contestation. This typically manifests itself in relation to property (space) and work (time).