The see-through world (revisited)

Rough Type’s summer retro blitz continues with the recycling of this post, originally published on January 31, 2008.

As GPS transceivers become common accessories in cars, the benefits have been manifold. Millions of us have been relieved of the nuisance of getting lost or, even worse, the shame of having to ask a passerby for directions.

But, as with all popular technologies, those dashboard maps are having some unintended consequences. In many cases, the shortest route between two points turns out to run through once-quiet neighborhoods and formerly out-of-the-way hamlets.

Scores of villages have been overrun by cars and lorries whose drivers robotically follow the instructions dispensed by their satellite navigation systems. The International Herald Tribune reports that the parish council of Barrow Gurney in southwestern England has even requested, fruitlessly, that the town be erased from the maps used by the makers of navigation devices.

A research group in the Netherlands last month issued a study documenting the phenomenon and the resulting risk of accidents. It went so far as to say that GPS systems can turn drivers into “kid killers.”

Now, a new generation of sat-nav devices is on the horizon. They’ll be connected directly to the internet, providing drivers with a steady stream of real-time information about traffic congestion, accidents, and road construction. The debut of one of the new systems, called Dash Express, at this month’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas led to claims that the new technology might “spell the end of traffic jams forever.”

That would be nice, but I have my doubts. When we all have equally precise, equally up-to-the-second information on traffic conditions, the odds are that we’ll all respond in similar ways. As we all act in unison to avoid one bottleneck, we’ll just create a new bottleneck. We may come to look back fondly on the days when information was less uniformly distributed.

That’s the problem with the so-called transparency that’s resulting from instantly available digital information. When we all know what everyone else knows, it becomes ever harder to escape the pack.

Just ask the hardcore surfers who dedicate themselves to finding the best waves. It used to be that they could keep their favorite beaches secret, riding their boards in relative solitude. But in recent months people have begun putting up dozens of video cameras, known as “surf cams,” along remote shorelines and streaming the video over the net.

Thanks to the cameras, once secluded waters are now crowded with hordes of novice surfers. That’s led to an outbreak of “surf cam rage,” according to a report last weekend in the New York Times. Die-hard surfers are smashing any cameras they find in the hope that they might be able to turn the tide of transparency.

But the vandalism is in vain. For every surf cam broken, a few more go up in its place.

There is, of course, much to be said for the easy access to information that the internet is allowing. Information that was once reserved for the rich, the well-connected, and the powerful is becoming accessible to all. That helps level the playing field, spreading economic and social opportunities more widely and fairly.

At the same time, though, transparency is erasing the advantages that once went to the intrepid, the dogged, and the resourceful. The surfer who through pluck and persistence found the perfect wave off an undiscovered stretch of beach is being elbowed out by the lazy masses who can discover the same wave with just a few mouse clicks. The commuter who pored over printed maps to find a short cut to work finds herself stuck in a jam with the GPS-enabled multitudes.

You have to wonder whether, as what was once opaque is made transparent, the bolder among us will lose the incentive to strike out for undiscovered territory. What’s the point when every secret becomes, in a real-time instant, common knowledge?

A see-through world may not be all that it’s cracked up to be. We may find that as we come to know everything about everything, we all end up in the same mess together.

3 thoughts on “The see-through world (revisited)


    With regards to things ‘Roughtype-d’, and retro, I had an old discussion here involving Yochai, Nick and some other participants in my mind, when I decided to scribble out some pointers in relation to GPS, SIM card mobile devices, that most everyone seems to carry around and use these days.

    The conclusion I am coming to, is that there are real challenges, technological and otherwise, which we do not understand properly as yet, facing smart computing devices, which interact with more central, network based infrastructure. I don’t know if Nick or anyone has thought about it, like I describe in my blog entry. But I also had recent events with NewsCorp and News of the World in my mind. I also thought of something Danah Boyd wrote back in year 2007 or 2008 (it’s hard to remember back sometimes, and the mind is deceptive), about kids making videos using various devices, which are uploaded via the many ways available these days. I think she was thinking about domestic, private family rows, becoming public in a way never envisaged before.

    All the best, B.

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