From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

September 27, 2005*: Taking to the streets

As I suppose that I've admitted numerous times in the past (and, fairly recently, rather extensively), to a large extent I'm a technological conservative. That, of course, doesn't mean that I'm fearful of new technological innovations, or that I think that too much technology can be hazardous to our health. I simply think that we should pick and choose our technologies, integrating into our lives only those that actually enhance our ability to function as well-rounded, caring people. But this conservative thread in my thinking finds expression in another manner as well. Even though my computer is open throughout the day, allowing email and RSS feeds to flow to me, and interrupt any other activities I might be involved with, while also serving as a conduit to searches, attempts to verify something, jumpstarts to still only half-baked ideas, and lots more, I see the computer and the internet as something that I access while sitting at my desk, something separate from other parts of my day to day activities. I don't merge with the technology, I keep it at a distance, unleashing it only when I feel the need.

It's probably primarily for this reason that I've been slow to react to what might seem to be among the most promising developments on the internet scene - something we might call connecting beyond the browser. Numerous users are apparently graffiti-ing their environs with URLs that, if contacted, return to us information - either visual or oral - about the spots where those URLs are posted. Grafedia, perhaps the first of these "experiments" has been around about a year. It sounds like a wonderful idea:

Grafedia is hyperlinked text, written by hand onto physical surfaces and linking to rich media content - images, video, sound files, and so forth. It can be written anywhere - on walls, in the streets, or on sidewalks.
In other words, there we are, walking down the street, and we realize that someone has embedded a message for us on a wall or on a sidewalk. Why wouldn't we want to click on it, and learn what hidden riches of information are waiting within? I definitely like the idea.

But why stop at graffiti? Admittedly, many see it as a true art form, and many graffiti images can be intricately captivating, but basically it's just writing on a wall. Why not take things a step further and engage in an unexpected game of show and tell while walking down the street? That's basically what [murmur] does.

The idea itself is extremely simple, and not particularly original. As we walk through the streets of many cities we encounter plaques on the sides of walls, small monuments at a street corner, pathways with arrows that direct us to sights of historic importance. In its essence, [murmur] is basically just that - with two rather significant differences. First, it's not institutional - instead of giving us parts of an official history, it allows regular, run of the mill, people to tell their stories about a particular spot. And second, it's done via phone - at a particular spot visitors encounter a phone number which they can dial, and receive the story of that particular place. The project's facilitators hold an inherent belief in the power of the average citizen:
the city is full of stories, and some of them happen in parking lots and bungalows, diners and front lawns. The smallest, greyest or most nondescript building can be transformed by the stories that live in it. Once heard, these stories can change the way people think about that place and the city at large.
Does making these historic plaques digital enhance our ability to access them? Probably, though true to my own form, I'd prefer to emphasize the asynchronous possibilities of a project of this sort, which may not be what the people at [murmur] really have in mind. Though I enjoy wandering through the streets of a city, more often than not I'm on a schedule, and have to get somewhere at an appointed time. If I was visiting a museum I might want to rent earphones and leisurely listen to a lecture on the various art objects I'm viewing, but pacing on the street is different. I'm pressed for time, and that's probably true of many others who might find landmarks that offer information about a place. Like me, it's a good guess that they'd prefer to be able to access the place-specific information they've encountered during the day when they get home in the evening, from their homes. While hurrying on the street it's hard to really listen. So while I'm all for projects like this, I'd benefit from being able to access whatever stories are connected to various geographical locations from my own computer. And come to think of it, an online map that lets me click on it to get to an interesting story would be a good idea.

Which is, of course, pretty much what lots of people are doing with Google Maps and with Google Earth. It's as though the availability of these maps created a paradigm shift, allowing people to examine previously unexpected means of organizing, or presenting, information. It's a bit like taking the graffiti-on-street-as-link idea, and doing it without the street. Instead, we can view information that's geographically pinpointed on a Google Map, and since Google Maps permit us both map and satellite views, we can get very precise details about what we're viewing. One entire blog, Google Maps Mania, is devoted to collecting sites that mash-up Google Maps with additional information.

What can we view? It seems to basically be a question of what sort of information can we imagine distributing in this way. A photographic essay on Seewall and Stanley Park in Vancouver, Canada is, for instance, quite pleasant, but sort of leaves us scratching our heads - why are these photos being presented via the maps, and not simply as part of a web page. On the other hand, the people at have mashed Google Maps with U.S. Census information, coming up with a fascinating means of receiving, and viewing, this information. Among the earliest (and probably because of that, the most famous) of these mashes were for finding an apartment in a particular location in a determined price range, and a very detailed map of Chicago crimes.

When done well, these mash-ups are definitely something to get excited about. And yet it's still quite unclear whether this is perhaps the next best thing, or simply an obvious, and not particularly startling, use of the technology. Basically, what do we have here? We have information made available to us via a presently novel interface. It sort of sounds like the World Wide Web. Don't get me wrong. I love the web. At present, however, I love it most when it's accessible to me from my chair, at my desk, providing me with information I can access from my computer screen. Having web-based information available to me on the street, outside the envelope of the at-home web experience, sounds like a wonderful idea. So far, however, it seems too much like a novelty, and not enough like a worthwhile endeavor.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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