The Future Is Off The Map

With new location technologies from Foursquare, Apple, and others, we don’t really know where we're going. Are we okay with that?
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With new location technologies from Foursquare, Apple, and others, we don’t really know where we're going. Are we okay with that?
Banzai Week in Venn

“No matter where you go, there you are.” - Buckaroo Banzai

In San Francisco International Airport’s Terminal 2, there's a display of old maps of the city. I'm a fiend for antiquarian maps, and I love my city, so I can't help but linger over David Rumsey’s amazing collection as I pass through. Before I make myself a tiny dot on a transcontinental flight tracker, I long to ground myself by studying the place where I live.

I can't help wondering, though, if maps are not themselves a piece of history.

I don't just mean printed maps. Yes, the old world of navigation—squinting at a map and trying to reconcile it with your whereabouts—is dying. But what comes next isn’t a matter of trading maps for apps, dumping Rand McNally for Waze.

What if our descendants never learn to read a map? What if it becomes a practice as antiquated as mailing a letter?

The Check-In Checks Out

ReadWrite played host to two events recently which got me thinking about the future of wayfinding. On June 3, I interviewed Foursquare CEO Dennis Crowley about how his company is moving beyond the notion of the online check-in to provide new kinds of location services—recommendations and friend- finding apps that don't require you to announce your whereabouts, but instead collect and broadcast them passively.

Later that week, ReadWrite co-hosted a hackathon with American Airlines and the startup incubator Wearable World. The challenge to the assembled teams of developers, designers, and marketers was to come up with new ways for travelers to move through airports and other travel venues.

The organizers placed Bluetooth beacons around the walls simulating security lines, airline clubs, and airport gates. Some developers made use of these to create apps that would track you throughout your trip. You wouldn't need to show a pass to enter a club room. Nor would you need to scan a pass to board your flight. The systems would simply recognize you, check your status with the airline and your flight reservations, and allow you to proceed on your way.

You won't even need to look at a map: Your smartphone, smartwatch, or intelligent screens nearby will simply direct you to your next stop.

Like Foursquare, American Airlines is envisioning life after the check-in. Other airlines and hotel chains will likely follow: Why should you need a plastic card to get into your hotel room when the room door will simply unlock for you?

When self-driving cars arrive on the scene, I wonder if we’ll even notice, as we’ll be so used to following computerized directions to our destination. It’s a small step from listening to Google Now tell us where to go to just handing Google the wheel.

Losing Our Way As Computers Find It

It’s easy to revel in the futurism of this scenario. I worry, though, that we'll lose something ineffable as we move inevitably down this electronically guided path. When I was a kid, I used to open up an atlas and dream of places to go. My fascination with a point on the map called San Francisco—a tiny dot a continent away from where I grew up outside Washington, D.C.—led me to a career, a love, and a home.

There's something, too, to consciously marking our territory. I use Foursquare like a diary, a summary of my day and a way to remind myself of my path through the world.

That act of placing ourselves on the map and deciding for ourselves what route to take is a fundamental act of human agency. So, too, are those time-consuming interactions where we announce our names and assert our identity to another human being. 

The sensors that surround us and the computers we talk to will know who we are in a limited sense—as a row of numbers in a database in the cloud. They may well save us time, but at what cost to our sense of self, our sense of being in the world?

No matter where you go, there you are, a wise man named Buckaroo Banzai once observed. What if there’s no there there?

Owen Thomas is the editor-in-chief of ReadWrite. Follow him on Twitter @owenthomas and catch him live as host of the new RxUX Health + Design Conference on Tuesday June 17.