March 29, 2004

Pattern Navigation

What happens to landmarks when every store is a chain? When we live life at 70 miles an hour we hand our navigation skills over to the government and place our trust in freeway signage. But what about when slow down to 35, stop and go, through the infinite "strip" feeds Americans and their cars?

The preferred navigation is landmark. Follow the river, keep the mountain on your left, turn right at the large oak, veer left at the rabbit rock. Walk towards the walls, through the iron gates, left at inn, right at the bank. Towards the capital, left at the Starbucks, right at the Jamba Juice, you'll see it right before the B of A... All of a sudden our landmarks are multiplying. And make no mistake plenty of effort goes into making sure those marks are memorable. But anyone who turns at a Starbucks is going nowhere but in circles... Drive around any populated space, USA and you navigate not by landmark but by pattern. Radio Shack doesn't define the location, but a Radio Shack, Baja Fresh, Noah's Bagels sequence just might.

To an extent we need to shut down the landmarks to navigate. "Look over there, to the right, a, Albertson's supermarket" This is not an expression of location, it represents instead a dislocation. For a moment we could be at any number of supermarkets. We need to establish pattern, step back, reorient to a larger world. Is there a Sally's Beauty Supply next door? An In N Out Burger behind us? The patterns of spacial DNA decode, our location revealed, or perhaps transposed.

One wonders how much meaning the patterns carry. Do our emotions rise as Dunkin' Donuts to Starbucks to Peet's signal the motion into wealthier neighborhoods. Or do our windows and locks tighten as the fried chicken downgrades, Popeye's to Kennedy Fried. Does the tinker's heart beat quicken as a Circuit City, Pep Boy's, Mienke sequence signals the shift into a preferential space.

Is there perhaps a shift back into history, away from the landmarked space of agriculture and into the woods of a hunter gatherer. A sequence of footsteps leads towards a limping deer. A pattern of droppings leading towards the blueberry bushes. A spectrum of greens encircling a rush of fresh water. As information multiplies around us like kudzu and giant crabs, are we pulled back towards the forests, into the jungle of complexity? A space that can be navigated by a slow gather or rapid hunt, but not by rational reduction of the stimuli?

Posted by Abe at March 29, 2004 02:13 PM


"But anyone who turns at a Starbucks is going nowhere but in circles... Drive around any populated space, USA and you navigate not by landmark but by pattern."

Peter Merholz linked this morning to an amazing essay by Christoper Alexander from 1965: "A City is Not a Tree" (

Alexander translates blueprints of planned cities into the tree diagrams and rigid use patterns embedded in them. Strip-mall planning assumes that at each level of the heirarchy should appear the same constants: Starbucks, Gap, etc. Identical options at every decision point adds efficiency, and reduces complex options, right? Shopping patterns turn out to be shopping algorithms to be called in any context you want.

You realize the awful identicalness (and genius of scalability) of the whole when you accidentally turn at the first Starbucks rather than the second, only to be dropped into a weirdly parallel space which _almost_ processes your algorithms, but not quite. This looks just like my subdivision, but where's my house?

Despite the goal of convenience and brand consistency, navigating by Starbucks is harder than navigating by the stars.

that's a great essay, thanks to the pointer. Strikingly similar to Deleuze and Guattari's rhizome vs. root, but predating it by a decade...

Sometimes driving can feel like a Hanna-Barbara cartoon chase scene. The characters run in place, and in the background the same three stores flash by over and over and over.

We may all be destined to need GPS units and map navigator displays to know where we are and which way to turn.

I live in a town where the townies navigate by where landmarks used to be - if they were memorable enough to be there before chains wiped them out.