Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Geocaching In

So, it turns out that this August marks the 10th anniversary of geocaching.  If you don't know what that is, you can go check out Geocaching -- The Official Global GPS Cache Hunt Site, but do that later, after you're done here.  Over on their site, here's what they have to say about it:
Geocaching is a high-tech treasure hunting game played throughout the world by adventure seekers equipped with GPS devices. The basic idea is to locate hidden containers, called geocaches, outdoors and then share your experiences online. Geocaching is enjoyed by people from all age groups, with a strong sense of community and support for the environment.
And here's their short video explaining it:

And according to the Wikipedia article on Geocaching,

Geocaching was conceived shortly after the removal of Selective Availability from GPS on May 1, 2000, because the improved accuracy of the system allowed for a small container to be specifically placed and located. The first documented placement of a GPS-located cache took place on May 3, 2000, by Dave Ulmer of Beavercreek, Oregon.

So, the reason I'm blogging about geocaching is not because I'm involved in that activity.  No, it's just that I was contacted last month by some young folks working with CBS News for an interview on the subject, so they came to up Fordham, filmed it, and a brief clip from the interview made it into this report they edited, which wasn't aired, but was posted on YouTube recently, and which I've embedded below:

The video appears under the heading of Geocaching - CBS News and you can click on the name back there if you want to head on over to YouTube and like it or favorite it or comment on it, or whatever.  My thanks to Kurt Beyer and his team for a great interview, as it was quite enjoyable to think about the subject, and talk with him about these ideas.  Of course, I wish more of my comments had made it into the edit, but I'm not surprised they didn't--that's show biz, as Neil Postman would put it.  For me, the most important thing is that the interview did give me an opportunity to think about the significance of geocaching, and I'll share my thoughts with you here.

First, geocaching brings together many of the main characteristics of new media:

1.  Information.  New media represent an enhanced ability to access information.  In this case, computer networks give us the ability to access geographical information, while Global Positioning Systems allow us to pinpoint our location in highly precise ways, and thereby provide us with navigational information (hence the Garmin, Magellan, and other products that have been especially useful for driving).

2.  Interactivity.  Unlike maps, which are static, GPS devices are constantly updating, and interacting with us as we move about, and of course as we enter new instructions into them.  And beyond basic navigation, geocaching involves play, it's a form of gaming, and play and gaming constitute one of the key biases of the new media (whereas games were a marginal aspect of print media, e.g., playing cards, board games, they move into a prominent position once the electronic media evolve into videogames and computer games).

3.  Connection.  Geocaching is a collaborative, social phenomenon.  I mean this not just in the sense that it can be a family activity--after all, you could participate by yourself, although it wouldn't be as much fun.  But what is significant is that it involves some people creating the caches, then others finding them, and each time a cache is found, you are supposed to log yourself in it at the cache, trade prizes (and the whole ethic of take something, leave something of equal value, is very much in line with the counterculture origins of a large part of cyberculture), etc.  The added social media activity occurring at The Official Global GPS Cache Hunt Site also is relevant here.   

4.  Location.  That's the next big thing in new media, location, location, location, and in that sense, geocaching led the way.  Today we have increasing interest in Foursquare (here's my little profile), which led Twitter to add a location feature, and Facebook recently followed suit with its Places feature, and there are a number of other sites that work in similar ways.  Mobile telephones have much to do with the sudden emphasis on location, as we generally do not carry GPS devices like the Garmin around with us all the time, but cell phones we do.  Smart phones in particular come into play, especially through Scavenger Hunt apps (see this page from TrendHunter Tech for example, and this item from the MacWorld AppGuide emphasizes the use of the smartphone camera in Scavenger Hunts, which in turn connects to the growing use of QR codes to provide printed images that smartphones can photograph and then use as a link to a website).

Of course, all this brings to mind Alfred Korzybski's famous saying, the map is not the territory.  In one sense, this holds true as the information provided for the location of the caches is not entirely accurate, so some additional searching is necessary.  But it is also the case that new media allow for dynamic mapping of the territory, rather than the static maps of the print era, so for example they can take into account the amount of traffic on a given route.  While Korzybski did insist on the non-identity between map and territory, he did not descend into postmodern nihilism concerning the impossibility of mapping, but rather emphasized that some maps are better than others.  And in addition to accuracy, the more frequently a map could be updated, the better it would be.  In this case, we have maps that are dynamic and able to adjust almost instantaneously to changing circumstances.  Korzybski would be pleased.

This also brings to mind Marshall McLuhan's famous phrase, the global village, and his observation that it was the satellite that had much to do with bringing this about.  Satellites circle the earth, surrounding it, and thereby creating a new environment within which the earth, the old environment, is contained (this goes along with his point about the content of a medium being another medium).  GPS and geocaching is another facet of our transformation into a global village, which involves recreating the world in the image of electronic media.  

Previously, we had remade the world through speech, giving names to aspects of the natural environment which would other wise be, naturally, nameless.  Later, we had redrawn the world in the image of the written and printed word, as we created maps, drew borders, and put up signs (love that song, sign, sign, everywhere a sign...).  Ultimately, we refitted the world through architecture, the building of roads, and city grids, according to the linearity and rectilinearity of writing, the page, and typography.  

Today, that's all exploding back into curvilinear forms, while we have been wiring our environment with electric circuitry--lights to turn night into day, traffic lights as a cybernetic system of control, radio waves to keep us always in touch, and now wireless internet and smart phones to let us access geographical information instantaneously, at that site.  The electronic/information/digital environment has become ubiquitous, albeit not quite in the way that folks had predicted, not with computers embedded in the environment, but with us carrying them around with us as we move through an atmosphere permeated with wireless signals and data transfers (yikes!).

As I said in my brief quote in the CBS news feature, this all allows us to get up from behind our screens, where we really weren't all that comfortable anyway, and out into the world.  That's what we've been itching to do (just like students want to get up from behind their desks and go play, or get out into the real world, or at least have class outside if the weather's nice).  My point being that the screen has become obsolesced.  Yes, I know the mobile devices have little screens still, but it's not the same.  And that's just for now.  We're moving on, the era of the screen is over.  Let me put it as plain as can be:

The screen is dead!

Remember folks, you heard it here first.  

And there is one other casualty in all this.  Privacy.  That never comes up, because we think of geolocation, GPS, and geocaching as being only about accessing information, but our devices also transmit our location, and can be used to trace us, track us, hunt us down--the hunter becomes the hunted!  Well, that's an old, old, story, the risk that  prehistoric hunters took, and there is a sense in which geocaching, and scavenger hunts, are signs of our retrieval of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle in the new electronic context--that's another one of McLuhan's ideas, by the way, as is the loss of privacy and the private individual.

So, in the end, we find ourselves walking a fine line, indeed, a fine, fine line...   Walk the line?  Hmmm, who sang about that?  Was it...   Johnny Cache?

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