“He’s not here,” my daughter says to my wife about me as they contemplate the Mexican restaurant menu while my nose is in my iPhone.
“Where are you?” my wife asks, ironically, perhaps sadly, as she sits with her arm pressed against mine in the restaurant booth.
“I am here,” I say almost automatically. They both look at me with disbelief. Here, not here -- those terms have become much less specific in an age of connectivity. Mobile media makes it possible to be distracted from any given place and at the same time be deeper in that place than we might be without the technology. You can be fully engaged socially, but with people anywhere on earth and fully disengaged with the people right in front of you. Two decades ago the pop label for this was “schizophrenia.” Now we just accept it as people on Bluetooth.
“She hit a Lexus, folded her hood, no one hurt, got a ticket -- what is this going to do to her lease and insurance? Got it. Up to speed. See, I am so here” I am now in the habit of reeling off the key details of the conversations I am accused of having missed because my attention was distracted by technology. Which is to say that I have become the 30-second replay button on my mobile device multimedia players. Smirk if you like. This new fast-rewind skill comes in handy.
And yes, for those of you keeping count, in just a few years of driving my daughter has had one Honda totaled and her Kia attacked by two charging deer. This fender-bender with a Lexus SUV is actually the first time she was at fault. She is a very good driver. I have driven long journeys with her from the passenger seat. But she is an unlucky driver who tends to attract large antlered animals. Interestingly, her first defensive response is to assure me her own smartphone was not to blame. “It was on my seat. I swear,” she insists. “The policeman was very nice.” Yeah -- I haven’t the heart to tell her, men tend to be very sweet to drop-dead gorgeous (Lord, what did I do to deserve this?) blonde 20-year-olds freaking out about a minor traffic incident.
The great paradox of mobility is that devices can be both massive distractions from place -- the here and now -- at the same time they enrich the moment and empower the person in time and place. For instance, my daughter was able to have her insurance company email to her phone on the spot the proof of insurance State Farm had not sent her in the physical mail.
Likewise, during this dinner recounting my daughter’s latest addition to her increasingly wrinkled Kia body, I was getting messaged by my phone -- not by people but by nearby stores. In one of the first cases where I experienced the geo-fence effect for myself, two recent additions to my iOS Passbook app detected that I was near their respective venues. My Walgreens rewards card and a ValPak coupon for an independent hardware store at this same strip plaza were both in my geo-sensitive Passbook and were pinging me with reminders that I had offers to stores literally within feet of me.
Even my wife, sworn enemy of cell phones at dinner, admitted that was “really cool.” And arguably, rather than making me less here, my phone was making me very here -- more informed and invested in this specific place (if not my own family) than otherwise I could be without the device.
The basic idea -- that devices can connect digital data to physical place in powerful ways -- is nothing new. It is the ultimate promise of mobility. Whether through QR codes, image recognition, AR or simple LBS mapping and check-ins, the devices become the sinews finally connecting two decades of accumulated digital data to objects, places, and circumstances.
One app that caught my eye recently is TagWhat, which tries to pull together a vast amount of different kinds of location content. The problem TagWhat is trying to solve is that, as CEO Dave Elchoness tells me: “The Web isn’t geo-tagged, and the information is a mess.” Publishers have been generating tons of content for decades that actually is relevant to specific places, but no one thought of it that way. TagWhat has a Web browser button that users and publishers can apply to content so that it is more easily discoverable and location-sensitive.
The app is a bit of a proof of concept. Even in my otherwise digitally thin area of Northern Delaware the app pulls in Wikipedia entries relevant for many nearby locations. A well-designed slider lets me find Wiki, Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare references and nearby locations. You can adjust the range of the locator and turn specific content type filters on and off for more verticalized view of a place. “The most significant asset is the database with geotags and connections,” says Elchoness. “It could be made available publicly, and then can power other apps.”
Enhancing one’s sense of place can be addictive. Elchoness tells me that users typically query the app nearly seven times a day, and in a week they added 10,000 new users. Arguably, this is the kind of location super-aware approach that eventually should become part of a phone’s embedded maps. But for now, the TagWhat app gives us an interesting glimpse into the potential of devices to create a hyper-here.
But I think a deeper question becomes how this dynamic and process create a new and different sense of here-ness. What happens when we realize that the moment is enhanced -- perhaps even skewed -- and our perceptions shaped about the physical world by the timing and nature of the ancillary data that devices attach to where we are and when we are there? This simple coupon alert from my iPhone could have redefined my here and now from a dinner with family to a shopping occasion -- if I let it. That is the simplest example, of course, but what if location-aware messaging and geo-tagged data make it possible for every moment and place to become contested terrain?
And of course, the thorny question of whether mobile devices distract from or enhance the moment is only exacerbated as the information gets richer. For instance, a cool use of TagWhat in Colorado involves the state’s Dept. of Transportation, which provided over 400 stories to accompany people via the app as they went along the most scenic highways. Very nice when in the passenger’s hands. This is not something I want my daughter getting her hands on, given her propensity for taking on large wildlife. I think Colorado has much bigger creatures storming the roads than deer. And I am pretty sure that given half a chance, my daughter’s Kia can find them.
“He threw himself at the car,” she insisted about the last deer battle.
“You think he was suicidal?” I quip.
“If so, he wasn’t very good at it. He just shook it off and ran away. Maybe he was just depressed and reconsidered.”