Although I'm actually pretty keen on the potentials of pervasive computing, the current hype about GPS-based social networking apps makes me uneasy. The idea is that your mobile device will be able to tell you when somebody in your vicinity has or shares certain interests (or other characteristics, such as mutual friends or career goals). Then you can either stare at this person knowingly, or try to strike up a conversation.
But wait a minute. Isn't the loss of anonymity in public spaces--the ability to live without the constant scrutiny by strangers comparing what they see in front of them with what they know of your persona--what famous people regret the most? Why would we give this up in exchange for no money, no power, none of the assumed privileges of being a public figure?
Imagine: you're going about your business, relaxing or in a rush for an appointment, and some earnest stranger comes up to talk with you about X fact they saw on your profile. Now it becomes impolite to brush them off, so your options are either: a) be an asshole or b) engage in a conversation that you may or may not want to have.
Admittedly, there's also an option c) that you might make a genuine connection with someone you otherwise wouldn't have met. But I suspect that we already have more artful and delightful (if not efficient) ways of making these kinds of connections than broadcasting on our mobile devices that we like Lady Gaga, Foucault, or egg salad sandwiches. If you tell me that these connections can be formed on richer data based on our behaviors, then I'd have concerns about privacy. So this strikes me as a lose-lose situation.
My concern is the art of being a flâneur, of walking in the city simply to see and be seen, will be lost. That the risks and subtleties of flirting with strangers will be transformed into something more transactional: a search for potential friends or romantic partners who meet our stated requirements. Or that we'll start to bypass the simple pleasures of getting to know people in our neighborhood according to the rhythms of daily life.
I like seeing the same people on my morning commute, as they make their own commute or fetch their coffee; I like knowing them not by their name or profession but by their gait and manner, their inane responses to my inane comments about the weather, the mundane repetition of their routines relative to mine. I like that they know me in this way, too: that I can in some way be known to someone who doesn't know and couldn't care less what song I just downloaded or where I went to college.
Sometimes, when I'm walking behind a stranger on the street, I wonder about his life: who he might be, what he worries about, what loved one he might be rushing to visit with his bouquet of flowers. I don't need any more information about this person to know that he has his own preoccupations, his own desires and disappointments and responsibilities that are somehow parallel to my own if also in some deep way unknowable.
In public places, I become unknowable in this way to others, and in this process also to myself. When I take my morning commute, I feel a kind of freshness that is only partially explained by breathing the outdoor air. I step out of my apartment where I am surrounded by my books and clothes and art and all the other little props of my identity, and into a world where I become a little less defined. We need to nurture our identities, but we also need to let them go a little, or try on new ones.
The internet gave us powerful new possibilities for identity-play, but are these mobile technologies now going to tether us on their own terms?
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