Apple iOS7 and the psychogeography of technology

By Nicholas Tufnell on August 12th, 2013

iOS 7 will be released this autumn and the predictable protestations have been loudly – occasionally brashly – voiced by large swathes of consumers, journalists and even yours truly. Whilst much of this can be put down to a question of taste (oh Apple, what’s become of you?) perhaps there’s more to it. Perhaps there’s something fundamentally troubling about any major overhaul of any virtual ‘landscape’ through which we ‘navigate’ on a daily basis, which is separate to and distinct from a basic fear of change or our own subjective interpretations. It’s nothing new to suggest that many of us have become so attached to our phones, laptops and operating systems that we consider them an extension of ourselves, but just how much has this affected the way we think and what is the psychological fallout of these purely virtual realities that have become so much a part of our lives?

Some of these questions can be answered, or at least explored, by examining ideas written on actual landscapes and topography and applying these to virtual landscapes, which seems to me to be a natural evolution of ‘stationary traveling’, a sort of pre-cursor to psychogeography, which emerged in the nineteenth century. Through years of gradual evolution, from the eighteenth century Parisian flâneur to the twentieth century self-proclaimed psychogeographer, it’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that psychogeography has had an osmotic influence on not only technology, but indeed the grander narrative of creativity and innovation itself.

So what exactly is psychogeography? It’s not easy to say definitively and consequently a brief examination of its history is necessary in order to take these ideas much further. It was perhaps defined most succinctly by Situationist International member – and founder and descendant of the Lettrist International  – Guy Debord in France, 1950 as ‘The study of the specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals.’ Psychogeography is ‘the point at which psychology and geography collide’ allowing for a particular kind of underlying narrative to be influenced and teased out by the emotional consequences of the aesthetics of any surrounding environment.

Debord admitted that the term itself was one with a ‘pleasing vagueness’, and with this in mind, I’d like to augment Debord’s definition to include the study of any topographical or geographical creation and conception, so that it may more effectively, and indeed pleasingly, function within the terrain of technological innovation. Psychogeography in this instance shall be used as both a method of interpreting the virtual landscapes highlighted, and as something that is – to a certain extent – traceable within.

First – crucially – we must consider psychogeography in relation to books, old tech to be sure, but bear with me. Merlin Coverley, a prominent psychogeographer, suggests that literary hints of psychogeography can be found in works as early as Daniel Defoe, who characterises London as a puzzling imbroglio; any previous knowledge of the city’s structure was disrupted by The Great Plague of 1665, propelling the inhabitants into the uncanny streets and boroughs, creating a topography which was at once familiar and alarming.  William Blake follows Defoe, writing of the New Jerusalem – a city that was both mythical and actual – yet unlike Defoe, behind Blake’s New Jerusalem was the implication of unrest and disobedience; if this idyll is to be founded then, it must be on the remains of what came before, it is an ideal that requires aggression and (r)evolution – both elements of progress that arguably allow us to have technological innovation in the first place.

Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater introduces literary psychogeography into the nineteenth century. His drug-addled meanderings through London are prescient, and forecast the wayward wanderings of the successive century’s psychogeographer – de Quincey’s unique mode of observing the city grants him exclusive insight into London’s broader geographical offerings.  In the early twentieth century Arthur Machen picks up where de Quincey left off, exploring his surroundings in a dream-like, mystical state, influencing present day psychogeographers such as Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair.

Consider this history of psychogeography in relation to the mecca of tech innovation – California. In the early sixteenth century Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo described California as a utopian island, inhabited only by women and longed for by men who viewed it as a virginal and maternal paradise. When California was finally discovered, it was quickly established to be a peninsula, not an island, nor indeed a utopia. However, until as late as the early eighteenth century California was still depicted as an island and to this day it is still considered a place of luxury, wealth and a land where infantile wishes can be fulfilled.

Are the virtual landscapes that began in the eighteenth century, which then evolved into the virtual realities through which we now navigate on our phones and laptops not their own respective Californias? Our surrounding topographies have become in one way or another oppressive or restrictive and in search of ‘paradise’, we now retreat into the virtual worlds courtesy of Silicon Valley.

The dériver is necessitated, according to situationist theory, by the increasingly predictable and monotonous experience of everyday life.

It is now that we as consumers become dériver (this is my coinage, I’ve opted for an English ending to the French dérive); that is, a Debordian dérive takes hold as we allow our thoughts and emotions to drift and permeate our new virtual worlds. The dériver is necessitated, according to situationist theory, by the increasingly predictable and monotonous experience of everyday life. The dériver grants a rare instance of pure chance, an opportunity for an utterly new and authentic experience of the different atmospheres and feelings generated by the urban landscape, or in the instance of technology, a purely virtual landscape, based on known and experienced geography.

Importantly the Debordian dériver, like the flâneur, is flawed; he is not simply symbolic of progression or escape, but critically the destruction of what was once ‘home’ – with this absence, the flâneur retreats into the stationary travels of the mind and, ultimately, the new virtual realities which initially seem impervious to topographical change and therefore closer to the idea of a longed for utopia. Digital information after all cannot decay, become overgrown or modified in the way real organic material so often is. However, these landscapes are at the whim of a much more powerful force: programmers, graphic designers and market research.

No matter how much the flâneur tries to resist change – that is, the wrong kind of change – through increasingly sophisticated technology, it’s nonetheless inescapable. This is why the sense of loss, frustration or even anger when there is a significant update to a GUI is inevitable and often feels so powerful. It is at once resisted yet welcomed and connected to these virtual landscapes are our very real emotional attachments, which are linked with creation, memory and a sense of belonging.

These are in a sense part of our ideas of home, an oneiric construction that is always out of reach, subject to destruction and ultimately inadequate. These changes require familiarity and time for our emotional associations to reattach; this is partly why Vista failed; this is partly why Windows 8 failed and this is partly why iOS7 will be met with disgust and frustration.