Brave new world

XVII.4 July + August 2010
Page: 62
Digital Citation

Today’s flâneur


Authors:
Elizabeth Churchill

Location, location, location. It’s the new thing. Well, at least for the interactive-technology industry; for real estate agents it has never been about anything else.

Location-aware devices and applications that filter and deliver content based on physical location are all the rage right now. You can get a map with a “you are here” marker, or reviews for nearby restaurants, or notices about traffic bottlenecks up ahead, or bus times based on proximate stop(s). And this is my favorite: a nap alarm that’s triggered by a specific stop on a commuter train. You can blast your location to some or all of your friends in a social network, prompting people to meet you or just to stalk you: At this year’s South by Southwest Music and Media Conference & Festival (SXSW) in Austin, Texas, social, game-like location-broadcast applications like Foursquare (http://foursquare.com/) and Gowalla (http://gowalla.com/) stole the show. You can also end up a willing or unwilling target for all kinds of advertising and marketing; walk by a chain restaurant and you may be offered a coupon for a free martini.

Determining location can be more or less accurate, as I discovered when I was wandering around New York City recently. Apparently, tall buildings and AT&T’s sketchy coverage meant that my location updates were not happening in as timely a way as they should. Usually some kind of triangulation between GPS satellites, cell towers, and wireless positioning using access points does the trick. And using accelerometers, gyroscopes, and electronic compasses plus machine-learning algorithms that detect patterns in an individual’s peregrinations, it is possible to start disambiguating location and even predicting and prompting paths.

The market for handsets that support location services is increasing. Berg Insight (http://www.berginsight.com/), a Europe-based marketing intelligence and forecasting company focused on the telecom industry, forecast that shipments of GPS-enabled handsets are estimated to reach about 960 million, or 60 percent of total handset shipments in 2014. The most commonly owned consumer-level, location-enabled, personal devices are smartphones, which can support installation of native third-party applications. While historically these have been expensive, Berg Insight predicts they will be below 100 euros (about $135) in 2010 and likely to drop to 50 euros (about $67) in 2014. These devices are increasingly offering much better performance in terms of sensitivity and power consumption and are available in smaller, more aesthetically pleasing packages. The obvious impetus for this major push has been the wild success of the Apple iPhone.

Of course it is not just handsets; service infrastructures are also getting better. For example, SimpleGeo is making it easier and easier for developers to create new experiences within a short time frame (http://simplegeo.com/). And these services are piquing people’s curiosity. The iPhone application store (better known as the “app store”) reports 1,190 applications that are tagged with location. I mentioned some above, but there’s more: With applications like Graffitio (http://graffit.io/), you can “air post” notes on the nearest handy geolocation wall (the digital equivalent of burying a time capsule in the garden, perhaps); you can bookmark and tag locations; you can play location-based games with others; you can look for services like hotels, parking, and public toilets near you; find out when the next train is coming (having identified the station closest to you); get active in mobile dating and literally bump into the partner of your dreams; and of course get maps of any kind for navigation. Having spent the past few days trying some of these out, I can tell you the possibilities are endless—once you start exploring these applications, you can’t help but start dreaming up “needs” you never knew you had. For example, I don’t often lose my car in a garage, but when it happens, it is most annoying; I started browsing the app store, and sure enough there is an application called My Car Park. Being British I am obsessed with the weather, and liking clothes, I am always keen to know what to wear. So, if you tend to wake up wondering “What’s the weather going to be today?” and “What should I wear?”, then Stylecaster (http://www.stylecaster.com/) has an app for you. There’s also an app called Primospot for finding a parking space in New York City, but as of yet (as far as I know at least) nothing for advertising (or perhaps auctioning) available or about to be available parking spaces. I’m thinking of calling it Toot ‘n’ Tweet—you can let your friends and Twitter followers know you are about to leave a parking space, and anyone who is in the vicinity will be directed to that space.

Location is more than here and now of course. The geotagging of blogs and websites and embedded geolocation information in photos, email, or Twitter posts could revolutionize how we search and organize our content—sorting not just by time, but also by place. And what is more interesting than the specific utility the applications provide is how they are changing our relationship to the places we find ourselves in, and to how we find those places to begin with. Just as the railways changed how people perceived distance and time, these applications are adding a dimensionality to place that was previously the purview of faeries, grues, gods, and goblins. They can fundamentally change how we see the world and how we interact with it— and how it interacts with us. Here are some examples, from the mundane to the somewhat phantasmagoric.

Navigation. Going from point A to point B has never been easier. Technical glitches notwithstanding (see my earlier column on when automobile GPS systems break down [1]), no one need ask for directions ever again. Simply plug in a destination and follow the instructions. Replanning based on approaching obstructions is of course possible too—for example, traffic. The upside is obvious. The downside is that we may end up engaging with the world like zombies, not actually taking note of landmarks for later retracing. Worse, we may feel a profound angst if the battery runs out or the service fades or the road that we planned to take has recently been closed. There was the (possibly apocryphal) tale of a woman driving off a bridge, so blindly following instructions that she did not believe her eyes when the road simply ended. Her faith was off balance; she sadly put more faith in the misinformed mediator than in what her eyes were telling her.

Things to do. Pushing suggestions to my personal device based on where I am and on the preferences I have set is on the increase. These applications have a long way to go, but they are a start. Yesterday I tried pulling up recommendations based on my location for what to do next and was intrigued to find a dive bar listed on the same page as a swanky restaurant and a less than swanky cafe. Not so good. Had I not known the places that were being recommended, I could have been in for a surprise. I found there was just too much work to be done in sifting the good recommendations from the bad along dimensions I perhaps did not even know I should consider. My conclusion was that this is not like asking a concierge in a hotel for advice, but perhaps it should be. For example, concierges tell you: “Oh, that’s a nice bar, but the neighborhood is not the best. I would recommend getting a taxi home if you leave after 11 p.m.”; “Do you have a car? Taxis don’t drive by there much, so if you are not driving you may want to book one ahead or take a phone number”; or “Will you be changing for dinner?” while sizing up your outfit. These elements of places may seem extraneous but are fundamentally important to a good social recommendation. So event recommendation increases serendipity and exploration, but it may also, as currently implemented, lead to some faux pas, both minor and monumental.

Sociality. I have already talked about people finding and tracking in the form of applications like Gowalla and Foursquare. I have yet to have a compelling use case for myself, but more often than not, my friends who are on these services have given me useful information regarding someone else’s location. So while I see the cost-benefit trade-off of publicly “checking in,” I also see that having others in my social network informed does help me—even if you don’t use the services yourself, the knowledge is in your network for distribution by the people who do. When spending time with those who have a location-app fixation, the replanning I mentioned above becomes social (“Can someone look up whether to take 280 or 101 home? What is the traffic like?”) and navigating new cities similarly expands, when suddenly our devices act as, albeit somewhat simplistic, concierges in the conversation, prompting suggestions and discovery of likes and dislikes that may otherwise have never been discovered (“I didn’t know you were a rodeo fan!”)

Spatiotemporal dimensionality. From traces others have left in geocaching to mobile games and more content-intensive historical applications, the location you are in right now can tell you all the places it has been. There have been numerous interesting projects published on devices-as-docents in museums, but these docents are now staged outdoors. Researchers at Duke University are mapping old tobacco warehouses, textile mills, and churches and providing location-specific information as a narration of the lives of city residents from the 1870s through Prohibition. They are adding audio tracks and geotagging photographs of the mapped locations. Similarly, Banff’s Locative Learning Project (http://banffmobilehistory.ca/) offers a tour of Banff, Canada; as you slowly perambulate, you can learn about what happened in historical hot spots, bringing the ghosts of people and things past to “life.” I have also been told there are applications where you can “visualize” what is below your feet; a kind of boring into the skeletal structure of the city. Coupled with historical elements, one could stand stock still in one place and have the place talk back to you about the depth of its present and past. Which brings me to my next point.

Places speak back. I am much taken with the idea of “citizen environmentalism” and how location services can help us become more involved in sustainability issues such as air quality and green practices. I am also very interested in how, as these services connect us more to each other and to aspects of the places we move through that are perhaps not visible to us, we can empower those places to speak to us. Places are talking back to us, and we can help them tell us what we need to know to enter more fruitfully into a relationship of give and take, rather than use. Just imagine if the park near me could communicate that it has been littered or vandalized and implore me to support my local public services. I realize I am slipping out of rational utilitarianism, which is the usual mode of discourse around technology, but I am much taken, as I said, with the opportunities that location-centered technologies offer us for being better informed and taking more responsibility for the environmental results of our actions. This is, at least in part, why I am shifting from using location to using place. Location is Cartesian; it is that which computed. Place is what is experienced, it is a living thing.

While hyperbolic enthusiasm characterizes this emerging technical landscape, we do need to tread carefully. High expectations can lead to deep disappointments; accuracy is still a little off; and as with all technologies, there is a risk in overreliance on systems that can cause serious problems when breakdowns occur—I refer to the tale of the unfortunate woman I mentioned earlier. I also recognize that I have avoided discussion of the security and privacy aspects of these technologies, not because I think these issues are unimportant—that would simply take a whole other column to unpack. For the current context, I am satisfied with making the point that talking places and enriched place/time meta-data are upon us. There is much we can do, and this will really need to be a hybrid venture between art, science, and technology.

In the way that a well-designed urban treasure hunt can literally make you see the city differently, pointing your eyes up and down to find grates and placards, and taking you down alleyways and side streets you never knew existed, with location services one can see a potential shift where the taken for granted becomes the object of interest, the familiar becomes curious, and the possibilities for a different kind of interaction with place become possible.

What comes to mind is a French literary character, the flâneur. The flâneur is typically portrayed as a well-dressed man, strolling leisurely through the Parisian arcades of the 19th century. He is a shopper with no intention of buying; he is educated and wealthy, walking and surveying the city to pass the time. The flâneur came to rise primarily because of infrastructural—that is, architectural—changes in the city of Paris. This change was the creation of passageways through neighborhoods called arcades, which were covered with a glass roof and braced by marble panels, allowing for a comfortable wandering with little interruption from inclement weather or sounds of traffic.

In Susan Sontag’s text On Photography, the street photographer is cast as a technologically enhanced, 20th-century version of the flâneur. I wonder, are some of us 21st-century flâneurs? I speak of those who lyrically and playfully adopt new location-based technologies, engaging in dialogues with each other and with places themselves, not those who simply navigate from A to B. Further, are new location applications with their digital flows that connect and guide me from one place to another, the new passageways of the arcade? On a darker note, I also should point out that the flâneur is characterized as someone who objectifies people and objects alike, indulging his own sense of intellectual superiority as he probes his surroundings for clues and hints that may go unnoticed by others. Just as critiques of the flâneur focus on his distanced, objectifying perspective, his privileged status and superior stance, should we worry about the provenance of the algorithms and services that underlie our location-based recommendation systems and the value systems that are embedded therein?

As I continue to muse, I suppose I should also ask who is the actual flâneur: Is it me or is it my trusty iPhone companion? Or are we so much a networked cyborg hybrid that it is not worth making the distinction?

References

1. Churchill, E. “Maps and Moralities, Blanks and Beasties,” interactions 15, 4 (2008). http://interactions.acm.org/content/?p=1125/

Author

Elizabeth Churchill is a principal research scientist at Yahoo! Research leading research in social media. Originally a psychologist by training, for the past 15 years she has studied and designed technologies for effective social connection. At Yahoo, her work focuses on how Internet applications and services are woven into everyday lives. Obsessed with memory and sentiment, in her spare time Churchill researches how people manage their digital and physical archives. Churchill rates herself a packrat, her greatest joy is an attic stuffed with memorabilia.

Footnotes

DOI: http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1806491.1806507

©2010 ACM  1072-5220/10/0700  $10.00

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