User-Led Desire, or How Desire Paths Became Instagrammable

Photo above: Duncan RawlinsonCC BY-SA 2.0

We often see the digital as the opposite of analog reality. The screens in our hands have transformed into wormholes that take us elsewhere, away from the present moment, away from the surroundings. Keyboards have replaced tools, and lenses our own eyes: a layer of user interface coats every object, every experience.

The proponents of augmented reality have been raving about the change that is about to happen. Soon, they claim, the realms of the digital merge with the real-world environments. Like the Thirdspace of Edward Soja’s, this new realm will unite what used to be separated.

Lately, I’ve been interested in the humbler ways digital technology can alter our understanding of real-world space. Think about how the photos of gloriously dilapidated buildings have made urban exploration a hobby that is not only private and slightly disobedient, but also extremely public. What does that do to our ways of seeing rundown houses? Think about Instagram feeds where people post photos of faces they see in their built environment: buttons for eyes, screws for noses, always completed with smiling or sad mouths.

Then there are the desire paths. These are the small trails that one can see growing between the official roads; paths that have been created by the unruly and the lazy, the walkers who neglect the official routes and venture on grass and dirt. Typically, a desire path is created as a shortcut.

In the digital era, the desire paths have become viral. The Flickr account Desire Paths has almost 700 photos. On Instagram, typing the hashtag #desirepath delivers 1 150 results. Reddit has a string for them. After starting to appear in social media, desire paths have made it to The Guardian and The New Yorker. Many of the photos circulating in social media are first and foremost comic. They show trails that save the walker a trouble of two steps, maybe three; trails that cut across corners, short cuts that save time but destroy the lawn or park plantings. Suddenly, the tiny dirt trails that were used by many and simultaneously frowned at by the self-made street watchmen, have become memes and objects of admiration.

Like with most internet phenomena, it is difficult to pinpoint where or how the fascination started. My guess is, it has something to do with the programmer Larry Wall. Wall (1954), known as the creator of the Perl programming language, is the source of countless witty quotes. In an interview for Dr. Dobbs (Kim 1998), a journal for software development, Wall told the journalist Eugene Eric Kim the following analogy:

“When they first built the University of California at Irvine campus, they just put the buildings in. They did not put any sidewalks, they just planted grass. The next year, they came back and built the sidewalks where the trails were in the grass. Perl is that kind of a language. It is not designed from first principles. Perl is those sidewalks in the grass. Those trails that were there before were the previous computer languages that Perl has borrowed ideas from. And Perl has unashamedly borrowed ideas from many, many different languages. Those paths can go diagonally. We want shortcuts.” 

Photo: Paul Sableman. CC BY 2.0

The factuality of the story is contested, and it seems that the same claim has been made about multiple university campuses in the United States. Is this truly a wide-spread planning procedure or just an urban legend?  Several message-boards have discussed the claim, different theories have arisen. The following theory is proposed by the nickname adinrondack_mike at the StraightDope board: The roots of this wide-spread story can be traced to the Oregon Experiment carried out at the University of Oregon in the 1970’s. The heart of the experiment was Austrian-borne architect Christopher Alexander, who turned the planning process of the campus upside down and introduced a bold, user-led planning philosophy. Based on the experiment, Alexander published three books that became classics of urban planning: The Oregon Experiment (Abrams et al. [1975] 1980), A Pattern Language (Alexander et al. 1977) and A Timeless Way of Building (Alexander 1979). As I’d like to add, adinrondack_mike’s theory is supported by the fact that Alexander went on to teach at UC Berkeley – the same university where Larry Wall studied. 

Thanks to Larry Wall, the story of desire paths the students created took another spin when introduced as an analogy of user-lead design outside the field of urban planning. This is what often happens: when the analogy or the metaphor is transplanted to another field or when the concept travels, it suddenly becomes more prevalent. Wall, a linguist by training, knew how to explain himself: the analogy is efficient, interesting, and above all, intuitive. It fits the spirit of early programming culture, the need to create and better. Wall’s use of the analogy made it accessible to the early users and proponents of the digital technologies, which, together with the aficionados of urban planning, made it a common image in social media.

Desire paths have established themselves as the symbol of civil disobedience, anarchy and pragmatic design. After following the #desirepath, I see desire paths differently. First of all, I see them. Secondly, not only do I see them but the official sidewalks, as well. This is also the format of the most popular #desirepath photos: in the picture, the desire path is often represented in relation to the official sidewalk or dirt path. It seems that the photographers of the desire paths want to represent them as a deviation from the norm, the planned route. Thinking about this has changed my view on desire paths. Earlier, when seeing a desire path, I thought about time: time saved taking the desire path. These days, I mostly think about the official route they divert from. Perhaps, I’ve begun to think, perhaps desire paths are not just about saving time or effort. Perhaps they are also about people willing to follow other people, or at least their footprints. Desire paths are the human face of the built environment, the little note on the margin of the urban text. To refuse the ready-made and choose the handcrafted, that’s the kernel of the desire path.

Printed sources:

Abrams, Denny, Christopher Alexander, Shlomo Angel, Sara Ishikawa, and Murray Silverstein. (1975) 1980. The Oregon Experiment. 2. p. 1979 [1. p. 1975]. New York: Oxford University Press.

Alexander, Christopher. 1979. The Timeless Way of Building. Center for Environmental Structure Series. New York: Oxford University Press.

Alexander, Christopher, Professor in the Department of Architecture Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein, Max Jacobson, Ingrid Fiksdahl-King, and Shlomo Angel. 1977. A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kim, Eugene Eric. 1998. A Conversation with Larry Wall. Dr. Dobb’s. The World of Software Development. Available at http://www.drdobbs.com/a-conversation-with-larry-wall/184410483.

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