Location Unaware

My previous post on the effect of GPS navigation on wayfinding in public spaces got me thinking a bit more widely about this whole GPS & Smartphone-fueled revolution in information consumption that we find ourselves in. Right up front I’m going to confess to being a very committed iphone user. Like a lot of people, after two years of use I find this device completely indispensable, and can hardly imagine life without it. That’s why it pains me so much to write the next sentence. I’m beginning to question the cost/benefit equation of smartphones in public programming situations.

The article I cited in my previous post, Alex Hutchinson’s Global Impositioning Systems really got me thinking about this. It was a particular quote referencing research by Cornell University’s Gilly Leshed that did it.

…knowledge of an area means more than just finding your way around. Navigation underlies the transformation of an abstract “space” to a “place” that has meaning and value to an individual.

This has rather large consequences for visitor experience, suggesting that conventional approaches to moving through and interacting with a space may in fact have greater value in creating engagement and comprehension. Greater value than when we attempt to enhance the experience with location aware or augmented reality approaches? That’s exactly what Ari N. Schulman argues in his article GPS and the End of the Road in The New Atlantis (tip of the hat to @brainpicker for this one). He explores the social implications of our blossoming love affair with personal technologies that help us navigate, augment and interpret our surroundings.

Shulman describes augmented reality applications such as Layar as

…an admission of our seeming distrust in places to be sufficiently interesting on their own.

Ouch. He may have a point though, often our most memorable experiences in life are those lived wholly in the moment, making sense of things on our own, at our own pace. The beauty of those times is that they can have very personal meaning, and that meaning can be different for each person. While that in itself is a beautiful thing, it may not entirely work in favour of a site or museum that would like you to leave having imbibed a certain message, core to their mandate.

Perhaps something less invasive? Shulman skewers “location aware” applications thusly:

there is a doublethink at work in regarding GPS and the technologies built upon it as engendering “location awareness,” when their aim is to permit us to traverse a place with the minimum necessary awareness of it

Double ouch. It’s hard to argue with his assertion if we spend our time at a site or museum glued to our handheld screen, allowing it to become the intermediary between us and what we’re “seeing”, engendering an inauthentic experience. It doesn’t have to be this way though. I think the trick is to use the technology, or really any form of interpretation, to provide just enough to enhance our understanding, and then to get out of the way. Let the scene, or the artifacts, or the ambiance of the place tell it’s story. To the extent that a “location aware” app can do this more efficiently or effectively, I’m all for it. Let’s use technology in targeted ways that leverage the best things it can bring, and leave it out when the cost to visitor or user experience outweighs the benefits.

Like this? You might want to check out the previous post The End of Wayfinding? or other posts from the technology or wayfinding categories.

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Comments (4)

  • Hi Stewart, great observations here. In this context, it’s hard not to think about McLuhan’s assertion that “Every extension is an amputation”.

    There will be a time – in the not so distant future – when we’ll be treating digital technology as a tool rather than as the end-product.


    Hi Jonathan, I had not seen that McLuhan quote before, but it’s entirely apropos this topic. You’re prompting me to add McLuhan to my reading list, he was incredibly prescient about technology that wasn’t hardly dreamed of in his time.

    Your second point is spot-on as well, I feel there is somewhat of a mad scramble to implement technology to deliver content without a clear sense of what it may be adding to (or subtracting from) user experience.

    Thanks for adding your thoughts.


  • Oh yes, that mad scramble which you refer to is a good elucidation of techno-determinism. A hard determinist may claim that my previous statement about digital technology is at best romantic and that it’s really about “what technology wants”, just like Kevin Kelly’s book title.


    The whole thing seems a bit chicken and egg-ish to me, but I invite techno-determinists to weigh in. Thanks again for these thought-provoking comments.

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