Being there, actually and digitally

I spent the last 6 weeks doing a project San Francisco, a great opportunity to live and work in a different context for a while. It was nearly a perfect amount of time to really experience and begin to understand a place without losing touch with home. I ended up exploring a good amount, here’s a map of everywhere I went.

In Chicago I do a lot of things by myself, but given my living situation in San Francisco I found myself going out alone even more often. Whether it was a restaurant, park, coffee shop, or music venue I ended up reflecting on how I was relating to the places and people around me, and what role technology was having in helping or hindering that relationship. My iPhone was invaluable for finding my way around public transportation and pointing me towards good restaurants, but once I arrived somewhere it felt like a crutch, something I receded into. With my glowing rectangle in hand I could be anywhere, reading my friend’s updates or world news, oblivious to my surroundings and broadcasting that message to everyone else. It reminded me of Chris Ware’s brilliant cover for the New Yorker nearly a near ago. Needless to say, I tried to keep my phone in my pocket.

Recently, the New York Times published an article on this topic that makes a conclusion I disagree with. In E-Book Readers Make People Less Isolated the author argues that the iPad and Kindle provide more openings for strangers to engage someone using these devices than if they were reading a book. One of the quotes is that “Strangers constantly ask about it,” which gets precisely to what I think is the misinterpretation. These are heavily marketed consumer devices that receive attention because they are new and shiny; the interest is in the thing, not the person. There’s little wonder that this particular article was published in the Fashion and Style section and features a photo of a runway model holding an iPad.

In my experience, there is a huge social difference between using an iPhone and physical media such as a book or magazine. The numerous possible activities afforded by an iPhone creates a “down the rabbit hole” effect that draws the user deeper into their own self and projects an unapproachable air to others because they can not gauge the purpose, or level of intensity, in which you are engaged. In contrast, a book or magazine projects a temporary, non-transactional activity, and the trivialness of interruption is obvious.

These are hardly original thoughts, but in an era when social media increasingly claims to be contextual to your location I think it’s an important time to reflect on what is really enhancing a sense of “thereness” and what is using mobility and location as merely a search query or as communication to others not present.

Last week I stopped by the Processing.Android conference at UIC to see talks by Malcolm McCullough, Ben Fry, and Casey Reas. It was inspiring to see the state of Processing and the breadth of ways it is being used, but Malcolm’s talk is the one that’s been rattling around my head in relationship to this topic. The presentation covered familiar points from Digital Ground concerning street level media, foraging vs. searching, urban markup, and general discussion of embodied interaction in public space. At the end of the Q+A Malcolm asked us what we thought of the state of locative media, after bringing up examples including Yelp Monocole, Loopt, Layar, and of course Four Square.

I started considering his question in relationship to this topic of digital isolationism. What strikes me about locative media today is the weakness of connection to what is actually present. A vision that Malcolm puts forth in his book is a world of embodied technology, of sensors and computation found in buildings and the environment that one can interact with directly. A survey of today’s mobile applications would disappoint if that was the expectation, since they mostly use location as an input to a constrain a search in a remote database.

Our devices may always be connected to the internet, but they are rarely aware of each other or connected directly with technology embedded in the environment. Instead, a semi-accurate GPS coordinate is sent through our increasingly strained and spotty mobile data network, a solution that greatly limits the possibilities and autonomy of our devices in their relationship to their surroundings. A Four Square check-in is the digital equivalent of an “I was here” graffiti tag. It establishes territory, but does it connect you more deeply to a place? One need not even be present to “check-in”.

Perhaps we have simply not yet caught up to Japan and South Korea, and once the catch-22 of device and infrastructure roll-out is solved we we will find RFID and NFC integrated in our devices and paving the way for different types of touch-based connections to our environment. It’s interesting to consider how this would alter the social situation of using our devices in public, especially if you consider the possibilities for gestures that are more physical and placement-oriented instead of screen-based. NFC capabilities are hardly a guarantee of anything, but they do open the door for truly local services. The next evolution of locative media will not be something that mass market companies like Four Square can offer on their own, since it will need to involve the owners and maintainers of the physical environment. That local quality may be exactly what we need for these interactions to feel more authentic and present.

McCullough talks about a goal for embodied interactions as being “slow and close”. I’m still exploring what that can mean, but it sounds like a great thing to work towards.