Propen, “The Rhetorical Work of the GPS”

Propen, Amy D. “The Rhetorical Work of the GPS: Geographic Knowledge-Making and the Technologically Mediated Body” Design, Mediation, and the Posthuman eds. Weiss, Propen, & Reid (2014) (18 pages)

Propen offers a rhetorical lens to understand how GPS technology—the rendering of physical space in a digital medium—is “a material, rhetorical artifact that helps mediate our navigational experiences and shape how we understand the world in which we live” (24). Understanding GPS as a text allows Propen to note how such maps “[bear] the capacity for social consequence and as potentially influencing both the mind and the body” (24). In other words, Propen’s interest in GPS technology is how such technologies act upon people and their bodies. She sees the body, thus, as technologically-mediated and posthuman: “modes of being are inextricably linked to the material world” (24).

However, she is quick to point out that technology, such as the GPS, does not ‘stand-in’ for human action, rather the technology and the user co-construct agency. Accordingly, the GPS “engages” the user and “enables and invites an audience, even a dialogue” (27). In other words, the GPS is a material that aids in a user’s construction of place and understanding of space. For example, “the GPS helps create a sort of cognitive or mental map that can aid ‘in the development of spatial understanding and spatial ability” (28). As such, users “compose themselves in relationship to highly symbolic, selectively represented routes, locations, and place names. The symbolic representations of the world around us then have clearly material impacts, which may result…in having to supplement the cues of the GPS by stopping to ask for directions” (29). In this way, the GPS works rhetorically: it challenges (and sometimes corrects) a users’ knowledge of the environment and thus their sense of place. As such, the GPS does play a rhetorical role in decision making for the user. “The GPS then has the capacity to engage the user with its cues and directives that may either facilitate or discourage decision-making” (31).

Propen also notes that users often employ multiple maps—both digital and print—to supplement what can be known about the environment. Likewise, we also must consider how a passenger also interacts with the GPS by both feeding it information and interpreting its rendering/directions.

The GPS also plays a role in externalizing memory which has an impact on future decision making: “the ability of the GPS to preserve and reproduce store routes and saved information, and display this information through multimodal, cartographic texts can indeed foster new schemes for geographic meaning and relationships between GPS and the user” (33). Memory is distributed among various technologies—“access to a text is accorded the same importance as knowledge itself” (Brooke 786, qtd in Propen 34).

In sum, the GPS certainly functions rhetorically to co-construct agency “in such a way that facilitates purposeful, navigational decision-making” (35). In other words, GPS has the capacity to impact geographical understanding both constraining and discouraging geographical knowledge-making and through enabling and encouraging travel and geographical exploration. The potential of the GPS to impact geographical knowledge subsequently affects our everyday, social and interpersonal relationships, and how we choose to explore and understand the worlds in which we live” (36).


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