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October 24, 2008

Filed under: culture»internet»excession

On the Grid

I guarantee you, right at this moment, someone is trying to figure out how to display ads, or porn, or ads for porn, based on your current latitude, longitude, and browser history. "Location, location, location" is not just a cliched real-estate slogan anymore. It's the guiding principle behind a whole slew of web startups and new technologies: location-aware browsers, geotagged photos, RFIDs, and who knows how many budding social networks--and those are the least annoying ones. Expect the Beltway to be getting a lot of shipments from the makers of "Margaret Thatcher Gone Wild."

But those applications, like most Web 2.0 startups, are trying so hard to be groundbreaking that they're missing the point. It's not that there aren't legitimate commercial uses for that data, or that those uses won't be seen as essential one day. It's that there's a more intrinsic, human aspect to location awareness, and it has the potential to be culture-changing at a level that's a lot more profound than just virtual grafitti and inventory maintenance.

When Belle and I have travelled in the past, we've often planned our days carefully. And by "we," I mean Belle. It's not so much that she likes planning (although I suspect she does), but probably more that I'm really bad at it, and someone usually has to do it since we rely on public transportation at our destination. That means writing down at least a couple of transit routes, and carrying a lot of maps. It's stressful, especially if (for example) someone read a map wrong in Paris once by accident, resulting in a 30-block trek to a restaurant that the guidebook neglected to note was closed, and then that same person might have made a wrong turn in Chicago once with similar results, and now his girlfriend HAS to second-guess his map-reading skills constantly even though those were ISOLATED INCIDENTS, BELLE, GIVE IT A REST ALREADY.

For the second half of this trip to the Pacific Northwest, we did things a little differently. I've got a smartphone, and Belle's been using a Samsung Instinct, which has a GPS and a number of smartphone-ish features. We'd pick a few things to do each day, then figure out routes and detours dynamically via the data connection. The difference was night and day, and better by orders of magnitude.

As a side note, not to sound like a shill, but I cannot say enough good things about the Google Maps app on S60. It's not only fast and smart, which you'd expect from a search company, but the more recent versions have integrated public transit directions that worked flawlessly for us in Portland. Given the limitations of cellular triangulation-based location-finding, it still requires a little map-reading and common sense, but that's a small price to pay to never look at a bus map again.

Having location information instantly available did more than just make it easy to get from place to place. We stopped worrying about missing a stop on the bus--just keep Maps open and check to see when the blue circle gets close to the end of the purple line. It was still possible to get lost, but it didn't provoke feelings of helplessness anymore. Likewise, we could still spontaneously make little discoveries as we walked--Belle stopped me by chance at a local music shop that happened to sell the Z. Vex boutique effects pedals I've been coveting for years--but it was actually less stressful to just wander around because we could always at least find out where we were, relatively, if not exactly how to get back to where we started.

I suspect sometimes that the core engine of human psychology is a tiny, churning knot of doubt. Hidden deep under layers of rationalization and ego, there's something constantly in need of reassurance: "What's going on? What time is it? Where am I? Who are these people, and why are they staring at me like that? What happened to my pants?" As tool-using mammals, people instinctively gravitate to answers for those questions. The first step in soothing the internal doubt mechanism is to invent a device that answers its queries, like clocks and watches did for time. But the second step is to create a standard for those devices, allowing them to be universal, like the Greenwich Mean Time. Universality means familiarity means comfort. When everyone agrees on the time, it becomes possible to order our lives and interactions from a common reference point, which is not only convenient but also psychologically pleasing.

Yet cell phones were, as others have observed, a disruptive technology for timekeeping etiquette--not because they ruined our ability to plan, but because they decoupled it from the extensive scheduling burden. People no longer coordinate their schedules in such depth, but negotiate them around the less flexible portions of the day. When Belle and I met up with Corvus and Rachel at Powell's in Portland, we didn't bother to set a precise time or part of the bookstore to meet. We just agreed to call when we got there, coordinating on the fly. In general, plans are more vague, and yet everyone's still comfortable with that because the overall level of uncertainty is lower.

Location awareness, I think, has the potential to take that kind of ad-hoc social improvisation even further. Because if you can always figure out where you are, and the others in your group can do the same, meeting places become much more nebulous things. In that situation, any place that meets the necessary criteria for the task at hand--a place to talk, say, and maybe get coffee or other social lubricants--can be determined, shared, and navigated easily. The need for it to be familiar or known beforehand is eased, because when you're always plugged into your physical location every place is a little bit familiar.

One of the revelations I had at the World Bank was the realization, during our street-numbering education project, that not all cities have a systematic method of describing location by street. People in developed countries take for granted the ability to navigate using a series of concrete, standardized instructions instead of searching for landmarks and fumbling with relative distances. Perhaps it's possible that location services will alter the way we look at street mapping the same way that cell phones have blurred our mapping of time. Or maybe it won't. All I know is that it's gone right to the top of my packing list for my next trip.

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