Smart Technology And The Death of Culture Shock

New technology enhances our experience of place but makes it hard to surprise us

Posted Mar 28, 2013

One of my favorite high school teachers, Mr. Speichert, would mesmerize his classes with tales of world travel and a peculiar addiction to culture shock.  For his summer holiday, Mr. Speichert would book an air ticket to a strange part of the world, a place he’d never visited, whose language he didn’t speak and whose history he didn’t know.  He would deliberately eschew all travelogues related to his planned trip so that he could arrive on unfamiliar ground as little prepared for what awaited him as it was possible to be.  He told us that it was a most fantastic thrill to step off a plane into a world filled with mystery and novelty and to grope his way forward, one small step at a time, finding ways to solve the basic problems of life like finding food and shelter, almost as if he had become a young child again.  I remember thinking that Mr. Speichert must be unimaginably brave to put himself into such circumstances deliberately, and I couldn’t even begin to think how I might muster such courage.

Fast forward a few decades and after a few strange twists and turns in my own life, I’ve begun to think that not only was Mr. Speichert a brave pioneer of travel, but his style of wandering, and the way that it affects mind and body, may have much to teach us about the human relationship with place.  For the past two years, I’ve been involved in a remarkable global enterprise—the BMW-Guggenheim Laboratory, whose mission is to move from city to city, bringing with it an engaging program of speakers, workshops and programs that encourage visitors to consider what it means to live in a modern city, what problems need to be solved, what kinds of city infrastructure work best, and what people really want to see happening in their streets and neighborhoods. 

So far, the lab group has visited New York, Berlin and Mumbai and I have been lucky enough to join them in all three of these cities. I designed and conducted an experiment in which participants joined me on a walk through a city neighborhood while carrying a small suite of technical gear that allowed me to record their thoughts, feelings, impressions, and the state of their bodies.  As a psychologist with a long-standing interest in how our physical surroundings influence our senses—especially the visual sense—I planned the walks in such a way as to try to highlight certain kinds of key differences between the sensory environments of different locations in a city district.  My thought was that if this was done well, the results might help to further new ideas in urban design or, at the very least, put some of the well-worn principles used by urban designers, many of them born only of intuition and experience, onto a firm empirical foundation. 

We’ve made a number of really interesting discoveries about how cities affect our minds, and I’ll discuss a few of them in future posts.  What I want to do here is to talk about one particular aspect of our data that has fascinated and surprised me, and it relates to Mr. Speichert’s experiments in culture shock.  Based on previous work in my field, I had expected that things like the presence of nice parks, the scale and style of street views, and the buzz of visible human activity would all exert an influence on our feelings and our thoughts, and its not surprising to me that those early expectations were largely confirmed.  What I wasn’t expecting was the extent to which one’s understanding of the history and culture of a location in an urban environment exerts an influence on one’s reaction to a place.  When I compared the responses of people who lived in or very near our study site with those for whom the site was less familiar—tourists, for instance—I discovered that there were marked differences between the two groups.  Those who don’t know an area well appear to respond strongly to their sensory surroundings.  Those who are familiar with an area respond less to what they see and hear and more to what they know—the story of the place.  With hindsight, perhaps this shouldn’t have surprised me as much as it did.  We know from stories of the behavior of ancient wayfinding cultures like the Inuit, native Australians, and seafaring navigators of the Pacific Ocean that there are usually strong links between story and place.  Knowing a place certainly means knowing how it looks, but what is seen and felt is often transcended by what is remembered.

I already had some idea of the power of place familiarity to influence our psychology before I arrived in Mumbai last December, and so decided to conduct a sort of personal experiment in the manner of my old English teacher.  Whereas I would normally arm myself with as much knowledge as possible about a place before I arrived there by reading books, looking at maps, taking advantage of the powerful online resources that are available to explore a place via cyberspace before actually landing there, for my trip to Mumbai I deliberately shielded myself from as much foreknowledge as possible before arrival.  I wanted to experience the sensory confusion of a newborn in a foreign land.  Although this approach ended up taking a fair toll on my stress response systems, it also bore rich fruit.  For my first few days in India I was completely immersed—overloaded in fact—by a rich wash of sensations.  As I walked the city, my eyes flitted ceaselessly from place to place, finding mystery and fascination in every scene.  My ears were assaulted by the sounds of the streets—honking horns, the buzz of the busy market streets—and my nose was treated to a wild array of new combinations of spicy aromas (and I’ll admit some of the less palatable smells that are inevitable in a city that has one of the highest human densities of any place in the world).  I was afraid, intrigued, overwhelmed, overcome with joy, exhausted, and at times thoroughly confounded by patterns of the streets unlike anything that I’d ever known.  And I’ve done a lot of traveling!

I’m thinking about all of this a great deal these days as more and more stories about wearable computing hit the headlines.  Google glasses are almost upon us.  Several companies are working on smart watches.  We already carry very powerful computers in our smart phones that can be loaded with “augmented reality” applications that track our location via GPS and annotate our surroundings on the fly.  There’s no question that such tools can be incredibly handy.  Just as GPS-enabled devices on our phones and in our cars have made it much easier for us to know where we are at all times, these other kinds of tools provide us with a set of ready-made stories about the places we visit that can help provide a kind of instant understanding of place as seen through the experiences of many others who have preceded us.  But on the other hand these new tools will make it more difficult for us to experience the pleasure of a novel encounter with place.  The pleasant shock of the new will become a rare experience indeed. 

I have no doubt that many of the new developments in wearable computing will lead to some remarkable changes in the human relationship with place.  One way to think about such devices is that they will actually extend our senses by allowing us to experience entirely new perceptual dimensions (check out the MATR application from my friends at Spurse for one mind-blowing example of this).  They will also allow us to check in with the experiences that other people have had when they’ve been standing in our shoes, which will add a powerful new social dimension to our experience of location.  These kinds of technologies may also ultimately cause us to re-think some of the principles of urban design.  If the lines blur that separate our raw perceptions of places from their meanings as derived from many years of experience and use, we may want to re-tool our understanding of what place actually is.  Optimistically, we will want to find ways to take advantage of the new place-sensitive technology to design interesting, appealing and useful synergies of the virtual and the real.

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About the Author

Colin Ellard, Ph.D., is the director of the Research Laboratory for Immersive Virtual Environments at the University of Waterloo in Canada, and the author of You Are Here.

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