Once the particular provenance of real estate agents, location is becoming one of the more troubled terms in technology. The Chronicle of Higher Ed just posted a short “pros and cons” piece about mobile social networking, but it doesn’t quite do justice to the lived experience of this phenomenon.
I’ve just returned from a weekend trip to New York City (brrrr!), where I was privy to any number of conversations on the street. I got an earful of tantalizing snippets, including: “but your hard drive is just, storage, man”; “like, you said I could have it when I needed it”; and “do you remember who we said created Captain America?” (thankfully, this was a father to a son–and the answer is Jack Kirby, for those of you playing the at-home game). The repeated refrain in the hetereglossia of city discourses, however, was “where are you?”—a refrain most often yelled into a cell phone. From Union Square (a brief and non-debt inducing trip to the Strand) to the Jewish Museum (85 blocks or so from the Strand: I walked every one), the consistent theme was that of locating your interlocutor.
I’m not much of a cell phone user, and Albany is hardly the big city, so the ubiquity of the instantaneous location is a bit of a new phenomenon to me. My friend Ginna, a 7 year denizen of NYC, informs me that this is standard practice. “If a restaurant is full, we relocate and need to tell people. I get held up at work and tell J. to wait for me somewhere. It happens all the time.” Okay. So in a city like Manhattan, in order to meet up with your friends who live and work all over the island and the boroughs, you have to be locatable and reachable. This makes sense to me: it’s not like you’re going to take the train back to Brooklyn and check the messages on your apartment answering machine to find out where to meet. Better yet, when you get a call, you can change directions in transit. Headed downtown on the subway? We’re actually going to go uptown instead. You get out at the next stop and change platforms: voila! Conservation of motion.
Just as I thought I was really beginning to understand how this all worked, Ginna handed me one more tip: “actually, I don’t even bother to call people any more. I just text them a location.” [In the spirit of full disclosure, she told me this over the phone when I called to return her message. She was shocked to speak with me. Clearly, I was supposed to have texted her back. Given the level of noise in the city, that was the best chance I had to understand what she was saying, anyway.]
It’s difficult for me to fully articulate what a different way of life this is from my own bumpkin ways. It seems to me that at any given time in my day-to-day life, I’m infinitely locatable. I’m at home, I’m at my office. Occasionally, I’m out running errands, but then I’m back at home or office. It’s a fairly staid existence, really [I can hear you snoring, you know!]. For city dwellers, however, life is increasingly mobile, as are the multiple connections within a city dweller’s life. My intuition tells me that the experience of current education is similarly mobile: you’re somewhere on campus, you’re on your way to class, you’re at work, you’re at the gym, you’re out with friends, etc.
It’s a happy coincidence, then, that “location” and “interlocution” share a phoneme. If my experience this weekend is any indication, then where you are is becoming a significant part of your discussion with someone. It’s the first question you and your interlocutor must answer, and it determines the course of the conversation from there. In GPS terms, it indicates how long it might be before you can make human contact with another, and whether it’s even worth the effort to get to each other. In more social geographical terms, it delimits the field of appropriate conversation (consider the difference between “I’m at Carnegie Hall” and “I’m at Grand Central Station”), who else might be privy to the chat, and its approximate length. If Ginna’s move to the text tells us anything, it’s that location is taking on a larger and larger signifying function, such that one need only tell the other where she is, and all will be understood.
Does this hold out necessary considerations of privacy, as mentioned in the Chronicle article? Clearly. Bugeja’s question about the “addictive” nature of technologies that place such an emphasis on location, however, seem beside the point. I’d rather hear us asking what the cultural implications of the primacy of location are, and what other systems of meanings are now taking backseats to “where are you?”.