Honey, I Geotagged the Kids

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The Feature on 23 March 2005

How collaborative cartography could enable us to map our shared worlds – and why the wireless industry probably won’t go for it.

“Everything that people do has a geospatial component. We do everything somewhere. Even thinking,” says Rich Gibson, self-taught computer geek and co-author, along with Schuyler Erle and Jo Walsh, of O’Reilly’s forthcoming book Mapping Hacks, who believes that allowing normal people to manage, present and create media with a geospatial component will revolutionize and democratize the process and practice of cartography. Although, historically, cartography was a highly political, read-only medium for all but a select few, now, thanks to our new tools, we all have the potential to make our own maps. Cartography has become a read/write medium.

Indeed, the shift of what a map even is has shifted along with the authority of our encyclopedias. The 1910 Britannica considered maps in purely terrestrial terms: “a representation, on a plane and reduced scale, of part or the whole of the earth’s surface.” Today’s Wikipedia, on the other hand, entertains a broader, more encompassing, collaboratively constructed definition of a map as “a simplified depiction of a space, a navigational aid which highlights relations between objects within that space.” The Wiki version of reality has the modern map pegged.

Thanks to the power of software and microchips, computers can now represent pretty much any set of data points as graphics. As a result, the “space” that modern maps can signify has expanded. We don’t just map places; we can map everything from the weather to population density, the concrete and abstract relationships between things, intellectual neighborhoods of science or even fantasy. We can now truly see the way so many different things are – or have been, or will be.

Modern maps have been made of crenellations of the brain, chromosomes, atomic structures, fractal landscapes, linguistics, global warming, shadows of thoughts, political belligerence, transportation systems, the real estate distributions of celebrity and many landscapes that defied visualization. (Check out Simon Pattersen’s work, in which he juxtaposes celebrities on a UK tube map, this dynamic mapping of human cortical development or this National Institutes of Health representation of chromosomes.)

Although modern mapping systems depend heavily on computers, some of the most fundamental maps we use daily are drawn and redrawn on an ongoing basis by our own wetware. From the moment we become aware of spatial relations, we begin a complex process of constructing personal thematic maps. Maps of our mommies, daddies, bottles, favorite albums, movies, books, food, friends, pets, conversations and experiences – anything to which we can attach associations, meaning and relationships. But these maps live on an almost subconscious level. My map of, say, the best shopping in Stockholm or the spiritually resonant zones of cyberspace, may look very different than yours.

That’s why the people involved in open-source mapping and locative media are so committed to helping us make our associative maps more explicit and geospatially representative. If we could only collaborate on our mapmaking, these visual aids may just help us communicate better, and start to see some of our collective challenges from a shared frame of reference.

Right now, the locative media community is a loose collective of hackers, writers, developers and wild thinkers. And, naturally, some wireless enthusiasts. Many of them gathered at the Pervasive and Locative Arts Network Conference held earlier this year, organized by Ben Russell, author of the “locative manifesto.” And what immediately becomes clear on reviewing the work of the hopeful collaborative cartographers is that none of this would have been possible – or even conceivable – without the advent of wireless technology.

Whether it’s wearable computing that tracks our locations no matter what we happen to be doing, cell phones that let us enter our locations, moods or other data, or even all the wireless nodes, satellites and grid networks capable of finding, resolving and comparing all this information, we’re talking about an entirely wireless phenomenon. We’re also talking about what might prove to the be ultimate legacy of all our hard work here in the wireless trenches: locative media.

The phrase itself was originally coined by Karlis Kalnins, of gpster.net, who applies the precise logic of linguistics to an otherwise seemingly vague field. “Locative is a case, not a place,” Kalnins says, meaning it stands for a final location of an action or the time of the action. In other words, it doesn’t just happen in space, like a map, but also in time.

Some of the artists working in this, er, space include Scott Paterson, Marina Zurkow and Julian Bleecker of PDPal, a PDA program that allows users to build and share their own unconventionally conceived maps, or the folks at the GPS Drawing project, who use GPS receivers to record their movements so that they can run around with their wireless devices as if they were “cartographic crayons.”

Although media artists are desperately in love with the possibilities afforded by locative media, sadly, the mobile phone industry outside of Japan and South Korea hasn’t exactly warmed to the nascent field. The Mapping Hacks trio’s list of demands from operators and manufacturers includes low-cost location lookups, user access (through the phone) to everything that his phone knows and open hardware and software platforms for experimentation and innovation. All of these comprise a fairly reasonable wish list, but considering the conflicting interests of the many links in the mobile value chain, the operative word is still “wish.”

Although to a wireless enthusiast like me, the possibility of locative media feels positively revolutionary, there are still too few tangible benefits to be gained from having locative media in the daily lives of most people. “What is the competitive advantage in having your vacation photos geocoded?” asks Gibson. “Will all the other mom’s at the playground be impressed as you show your snaps, overlaid on maps, on your Treo?”

Probably not. And until locative media applications offer wireless providers or phone manufacturers a genuine competitive advantage in the way that, say, driving maps do, a future of collaborative cartography may have to wait until kids raised on GPS crayons are running the world.