Lian (Harvard GSD M.Arch.I)

I graduated in 2013, but still blog here once in a while.

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    Comment: GPS-based social networking, or the death of the flaneur

    By Lian Chikako Chang
    Mar 9, '12 5:36 PM EST

    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?


    • KevinKirkDetroit

      This sort of thing could lead into advertising as well. Certain advertisers know what kind of music I like, and that I've been looking for speakers to put in my living room.  I'm not looking forward to the day when someone on the street is trying to sell me something based on a recent Google search I did out of boredom.  

      Mar 13, 12 9:48 am  · 
      Lian Chikako Chang

      Hey Kevin! Kevin Kirk in Detroit! How about this Kim Kardashian t-shirt for only $20?

      Mar 14, 12 7:28 am  · 

      Hey, Lian, what do you think about the upcoming Google Glasses? Personally, I think this is going to be one of the most disruptive technologies in the near future, but with that comes the potential for a much scarier and more intrusive level of real-world social networking and invasive advertising.

      Mar 14, 12 8:06 pm  · 
      Lian Chikako Chang

      Hey! It seems really weird to me, too. There's something physical and potentially social about other devices--even an iPhone can be viewed with another person, or passed back and forth--that seems entirely shut down with these. It would be very awkward to talk with someone who has these glasses on.

      Then again, I suppose there are all kinds of complaints about the way mobile phones change social relations, too, and that hasn't stopped us from using and loving them.

      Mar 14, 12 8:56 pm  · 

      Social recognition system and networking by other names have always existed. It is always known people recognize languages, accents, color of skin, clothes, and relationships according to social caste system (not limited to India) and so on. I think this technology of providing further details and info will make likes with likes situation even more extreme and role playing more wide spread. Welcome to the world of Sims outside of the computer screens. Possibilities are endless now. It could further unite the "players" or further separate people or social groups from one another. What I know from facebook universe so far, the latter is more of a possibility.

      Mar 15, 12 12:48 am  · 

      As an Android based smartphone user and social media user I make a conscious decision to not make my presence known to everyone I know. I keep my GPS disabled on my phone and only use it for way-finding purposes and then turn it off after I'm done. I don't "check in" to places I go and I don't geo tag my mobile phone pictures that I take. 

      Much like Lian, I prefer the serendipity of life. Maybe that's because I'm old enough to remember when mobile phones and the inter-wide-web weren't the ubiquitous entities that they have become now.

      My mobile phone is a tool not an appendage to my self. My wife on the other hand, having practically grown up with the net & mobiles (she's ten years my junior) is completely addicted to her smartphone and Facebook. Sometimes I have to make her turn it off just so she can give herself a break from the constant feedback loop she finds herself in unconsciously.

      It will come to the point where people will start negatively reacting to having to interact with their friends and family and having to get past the smartphone gatekeeping. In order to have a conversation you'll have to ask Seri permission to speak to your friend. Our capacity to be social animals is vast but we let the addictiveness of the new overtake the simple pleasure of just observing the world.

      Mar 15, 12 2:01 pm  · 
      my fault.

      google goggles....... UNDRESS APP (overlay a naked body over pedestrians)... someones going to make it... not saying that its ethical... just saying i know someones going to make it.

      Mar 15, 12 5:28 pm  · 

      No one forces you to be hooked on it. The flaneur is a thing of the past, it is pointless to be nostalgic about it. Better to embrace it and try to find the new potentials. What is this thing about the serendipity of life? As if life was something predefined. It changes all the time, and this is the new life.

      Mar 16, 12 12:11 am  · 

      I am a bit more concerned about  the impact on the dérive.  I need an app that displaces my position in google maps by 736 miles, yet doesn't tell me when it is going to do it.



      Mar 16, 12 1:20 am  · 
      Lian Chikako Chang

      Found a related post: "Grindin’ on Grindr" at Public Interactives Research Team (PIRT)



      Mar 19, 12 4:15 pm  · 

      Flaneur revival procedure:

      Throw Phone GIFs | Tenor

      He's more interesting already.

      Sep 8, 20 11:27 am  · 

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About this Blog

This blog was most active from 2009-2013. Writing about my experiences and life at Harvard GSD started out as a way for me to process my experiences as an M.Arch.I student, and evolved into a record of the intellectual and cultural life of the Cambridge architecture (and to a lesser extent, design/technology) community, through live-blogs. These days, I work as a data storyteller (and blogger at in San Francisco, and still post here once in a while.

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