The Circuit of Culture of the GPS Personal Navigation Device (Part 1)

The first time I heard about GPS enabled navigation devices was during the Persian Gulf War when television reporters highlighted the use of GPS technology by the USA and the allied forces. Enhanced navigation helped not only the soldiers on the ground, sea, and air, but also provided a very advanced degree of control for directing missiles and bombs to specific targets. More than 20 years later, GPS Personal Navigation Device (PND) has become a popular commodity among civilians around the world who use it for different purposes. The PND tells people where they are, helps them to find roads and places, and records their trajectories in space, all with scientific precision and the visual clarity of an electronic screen. I am interested in studying the PND not only because I am intrigued by the transformation of a military gadget into a cultural artifact, but also because I have become a user of this technology. In this blog entry and the next one, I will explore the circuit of culture of the GPS Personal Navigation Device. I want to understand how the PND is represented, what social identities are associated with it, how it is produced, what kinds of consumption motivates, and the regulatory aspects of its use and distribution.

I. Find what you want (representation)

As a portable electronic gadget, the GPS Personal Navigation Assistant (PNA) or Personal Navigation Device (PND), has acquired meanings associated with efficient mobility, fast pace of life, fitness, exploration, and tourism that have totally hidden the military origins of the technology. The visual representation of the device in films, television programs, and videogames, has emphasized its functionality as the ultimate electronic resource for orientation. Because the PND, in its different consumer presentations and shapes, has a screen that shows a map, it has become natural to transfer some of the meanings associated with paper map. The difference, of course, is that this map is interactive, allowing the user to do searches, mark points, draw trajectories. Furthermore, the PND shows the exact local time and the coordinates according to the World Geodetic System from 1984 (WGS84 standard). Due to this fact, it is also normal to associate it with the cultural meanings of a compass and a clock/watch. The PND is helpful for the traveler, for the consumer who is moving, it provides directions, and keeps the time, it tells its users where he/she is and at what time.

A look at the representation of PNDs in television advertisement reveals not only some of the meanings that already exist in the popular imagination, but also the fantasies that surround this gadget as an object of desire. In other words, a analyzing PND TV ads, gives us clues not only about the present meanings associated with it but also about its possible future connotations. I have selected a 30 seconds TV ad broadcasted during the winter 2008 season in the United Kingdom. The ad has also been available in YouTube through the official channel of Garmin, an international company that manufactures PNDs.

A total of six different characters, in six different situations, are featured in the commercial. In all of the situations except one (a fisherman in a boat) the characters are set in motion. There is an adult man with long hear and rock and roll like fashion driving a van on a rural road; there is a city woman in a scooter crossing a street where a Santa Claus is standing nearby; there is an adult amateur cyclist riding his bike through an urban path; there is a nun jogging in the sidewalk of a family neighborhood; there is one adult Viking walking in the woods wearing a horn helmet, ancient clothing, and with a torch in his right hand; and there is finally an old fisher man sitting on a boat in a lake.

Each situation or scene is composed with a visual logic that goes from a long shot (establishing shot) to a medium shot (American shot) to a medium close-up, that allows the viewer to easily understand the different scenes. The PND that each character uses, becomes visible usually during the medium and medium close-up shots, and is not always in their hands. Actually, sometimes the PND just appears as a device attached to the vehicle that is being used. The exception, of course, are the scenes of the Viking who is holding a PND in his left hand, and the scene of the nun who is wearing a PND in his wrist as a wristband watch. The different kinds of PNDs are revisited towards the end of the ad, when each different device stands alone over a white background. As each PND spins it transforms into the other one, going from a big screen PND for vehicles to a wristband watch to a handheld. As a conclusion, the ad shows over the same white background, the logo of the Garmin company in capital letters, the website address garmin.com, and a slogan that says “Follow the leader.”

The visual pace of this TV commercial is very fast. The editing process has been tightly synchronized to the tempo and the words of the music, and more exactly to an alteration of the “Carol of the Bells” Christmas song. This song, originally composed by composer Mykola Leontovyc in 1916, is based on a Ukrainian folk tune and its major characteristic is the use of a four note motif as an ostinato figure (a phrase persistently repeated in the same musical voice). The repetition of the same phrase over and over, creates a rhythmic pattern that helps structure the visual narrative with a fast and constant pace. Furthermore, such musical figure helps to emphasize, over and over the meanings attached to the Garmin’s PNDs, more exactly the variety of uses and presentations of the gadget and the diversity of potential consumers. As the sixth stanza of the song says while the visuals reveal the scene of an old fisherman,

“find what you want
find what you wish
there’s even one
to find a fish”

The appropriation of “Carl of the Bells,” sung by one woman and a chorus of children, is very effective not only because it provides a perfect rhythm for the visual pace but also because it helps to frame the commodity in the context of Christmas holidays and the act of giving presents. As the last seven and last stanza says,

“give a give a give a give a garmin
find something fun
for everyone
garmin dot com
garmin dot com”

Watching over and over the commercial, and listening to the lyrics, reveals how little information about the actual device is conveyed. Neither in words, sounds, or images the audience can find a good explanation of the device. Besides describing different contexts of use (some of them actually fantastical as the one of the Viking), there is not an actual description of the features of the device. Perhaps the only part of the song when we hear some information is in the scene of the nun when the lyrics say,

“one for the nun
out for a run
wrist keeps a log
what she has jogged”

Despite of the absence of details regarding the working of the PNDs, the overall meaning that is created with the commercial is that these gadgets are moving along with the bodies of their users, they are traveling, and they are assisting a kind of personal quest, walkabout, or physical training. The message is: “the GPS PND help you find something and travel.”

The representation of the PND in the Garmin Christmas television ad reveals just some of the meanings attached to these electronic gadgets. There are other sites of representation for the PNDs that due to the scope of this blog entry I cannot analyze. However, it is worth to mention that meanings related to social activism, humanitarian aid, surveillance, and artistic practices have also been attached to the GPS Personal Navigation Device.

II. One for everyone (identity)

It is not fortuitous that contemporary representations of the PNDs in our global capitalist culture emphasize the fact that the gadget is good for everyone. The PND has become a multipurpose device that fits multiple social identities and lifestyles. Once a military gadget in the 1980s and 1990s, it faster became a favorite product for the private transportation industries (air, sea, land), and through the 2000s became widespread among the population of developed countries, especially among drivers and hikers. Later on, sports people (especially runners and cyclists), fishermen, social activists, and artists became also engaged with the PND and its potential for different practices.

In a certain sense, it is possible to argue that the general identity that the PND helps to construct is the one of a globalized hypermodern digital citizen that believes and uses the advances of science and technology for being aware of where he/she is, finding his/her way around the world, and collecting information about his/her movements in space and time. The general identity of the global digital citizen can derive in multiple identities because freedom of choice is at the core of his/her believes. This citizen realizes many activities using a PND as an assistant, as a sort of external consciousness that helps him/her determine where he/she is at an specific time. The freedom of choice of the global citizen allows him/her to develop different social identities as he uses a PND.

Science and technology are the columns that sustain the construction of this general global citizen identity. As the consumers of PDNs learn how to use the gadget and incorporate it in their personal everyday lives, they start to use more actively the telecommunication infrastructure that has been built in the name of science and modernity. The very basic action of turning a PND and looking at the electronic screen to identify the position of a dot in an electronic and flattened map (Mercator projection), connects the user with a global network of 24 satellites orbiting the planet earth.The user identifies him/herself with a dot in a flattened map projection and can see how that the dot moves on the screen as he travels carrying the PND. Beyond the philosophical implications that implies the process of identification of the human being with a dot in a map and the real time visualization of its movements on the electronic screen, the mere act of receiving information from satellites that are in outer space, reveals that the general global citizen identity is the one of a networked and informational being.

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