Unlocking the power of place
Written byRachel Hinman. 4 comments
The web is great at things, and not bad at people. But place has been its Achilles heel. However there's movement afoot and human expressions of place on the web are becoming possible.
Where are you from?
It’s curious how easily this question rolls off the tongue in the context of a conversation with a stranger. It’s a simple, socially acceptable question that we often ask without a second thought. Sure, it’s an easy ploy to fill the void in a conversation or move it along. However, why that particular question?
Why are we humans so curious about where people are from? And why does the knowledge of where someone is ‘from’ feels like a gift of familiarity? Suddenly, we understand something very important about them and who they are in the world.
The power of place
I believe hidden in the heart of that question is the undeniable power of place. More than a postal address, a GPS coordinate, or a spot on a map, any geography is embedded with a rich collection of histories, cultures, values, politics, languages, shared expectations and dreams. We social creatures inherently understand how place can shape and influence our lives. We use that implicit and unspoken understanding in profound yet intangible ways to forge and deepen our relationships with each other. ‘I’m from Detroit’ provides a world of information that’s distinctly different than ‘I’m from Mumbai.’ Eerily, though, this fuzzy information about place lies largely dormant and hidden in most modern technology experiences today.
Maps as the go-to solution
Maps seem to be the panacea solution to communicate place. It’s the clip art solution for a breaking news article on the BBC News web site or the Facebook application we use to brag about all the places we’ve traveled in the world. Maps are like a Mondrian painting — a logical abstraction that strips away the messiness of a place. A map is a highly recognizable but hopelessly unexpressive birds eye view.
Maps prove useful, though. They help us navigate the known elements of an ever-changing world. Despite the subtle visual dialects, there’s a coded visual language to maps we all know and understand. Maps depict the tangible stuff – roads and highways, cities, landmarks, trails and mountain ranges; maps express the well-worn paths we can use to get somewhere.
Maps are only one piece of the place puzzle
While I like maps, I think they’re only one piece of the place puzzle. There’s another side to place – an important piece of the puzzle that’s yet to be explored. Places are much more than a point on a map. Like memory, place is associative. We all carry a personal atlas in our minds of places we’ve lived, places we’ve visited, places we’d like to go, or places we’ve heard of – and these are landscapes that have no maps or paths – these places are personal, historical, metaphorical, and emotional. This is the heart of place, where it starts to have real meaning and become reflective of our true relationship to geography and sense of place. Shouldn’t the technology experiences we create reflect this?
The web is great at things, not places
We can think of the world as made up of three basic noun-types: people, places and things. As web developers and designers, we’ve spent the majority of our focus on creating sites and systems that help understand the things. Search, the most popular and one might even argue the universal interface for the web, uses words or language to find things – books on Amazon, a song on LastFm, a movie on BitTorrent, a pair of Hush Puppies on eBay. Things own the web. We’ve also devised clever ways to unlock the power of things on the web with features like peer reviews, associated product recommendations and price comparisons.
The web is undeniably great at things, and some might argue it’s pretty good at people, too. While most lack the grace, subtlety and dimensions of human relationships, social networks have provided glimpses into how to begin to grapple with the complexity of people on the web.
Place is the web’s Achilles’ heel – at least on a computer – simply because information is locked in the desktop or laptop context. Restaurant reviews are tough to access unless you know the exact name or address, bus timetables are read minutes or hours before you actually catch the bus.
Mobile is great for unlocking the power of place
Mobile is a different story. Mobile is a technology experience that’s well-suited to unlocking the power of place because we carry our mobile devices everywhere. Even the revered map experience is infinitely more useful on a mobile device than a computer. Mobile applications like Google maps on an iPhone leverage our spatial relationship to place, providing us with highly relevant and timely data.
There’s movement afoot, and people are beginning to make human expressions of place possible.
Technology is allowing landmarks to speak to us like a person, such as the Tower Bridge in London, communicating to followers via Twitter.
Location-aware mobile applications like Twinkle enable conversations to happen between people using the common ground of place as the starting point.
Applications like Urban Spoon add a dose of serendipity to dining by using location as a starting point for a host of restaurant options.
Finally, RFID is making it possible to connect things to place in interesting and meaningful ways. Countless mobile applications make it possible for users to find the best price on items based simply on a bar code or RFID tag and their current location.
What has always excited me most about designing for mobile devices is the new opportunities for people to interact with information. Unlike a lot of ubiquitous computing scenarios, mobile phones are tangible, practical platforms to experiment, prototype, and frankly, play around with new possibilities for information access. I’m excited to see how this mapping, orienteering, and the general sense of ‘I am here-ness’ unfolds over time – how designers and developers will bring the human elements of place to digital experiences. There seems to be no platform more aptly suited to unlock the power of place than mobile.