The End Of Place
Though Sci-fi of the 1940's made all sorts of predictions of flying cars, space travel, suspended animation, and robotic butlers, by far the most successful of it's predictions has been the extent of our communication power. Cell Phones, Satellite TV and Radio, Broadband Internet connections, and video conferencing all contribute to the "shrinking of the world" and, in Motorola's words, the elimination of "there".
But is "There" really that bad? In many cases, elimination of "there" has lead to a sort of social discomfort because while the notion of place is gone for the people participating in the communication, it is still naggingly obvious to the rest of the world. A prime example of this is that all-that playa who insists on discussing the details of his latest sexual conquest on his cell while riding the cross-town bus. Or, if you're a parent with college aged children, you've probably had a few sleepless nights because of this scenario: Kid freaks out because of a bad grade on test. Kid calls parents to talk. Kid and Parents get off phone with problem unresolved and worrying like crazy. Kid then works out troubles with roommate and sleeps fine while still worrying parents start making emergency appointments for kid with psychiatrist. After a week of parents worrying and kid feeling fine, parents finally hear back and get the real story.
The underlying difficulty with these, and other communication problems is two-fold. First, communication leads to loss of contextual awareness; A person on a cellphone, hearing the other party's voice so near could easily begin to ignore those around them. Similarly, a college kid, having just talked to their parents as though they were still living in the same house might be surprised that they didn't just notice that he had gotten over his doldrums.
Second, and perhaps more problematic is the lack of parity between the "shrinking" of the communication world and that of the physical world. While lower cost airline tickets and a general increase in speed limits over the last 40 years has sped transportation quite a bit, there is still quite a difference between getting in touch with somebody, and getting close enough to touch them. Events that occurred during the Indian Ocean Tsunami, and proposed solutions like the SMS-based ARC system have to deal with this trouble. Regardless of the fact that cellphones, or any communication device are not standardly available, even when communication is perfect, effectuating whole seafronts of people is a hit-or-miss proposition that depends on many more physical factors than just warning.
There has been a decent amount of exploration into the first problem. From Nick Rodrigues's recently hype Portable Cellphone Booth to IDEO London's Social Mobiles exploration, designers are working on making both the phone user, and those around them more aware of their social context.
But the second trouble designing a world which can physically move at the speed of cellphone's communication is far from being solved. And it probably won't... but is that really a bad thing? We started by asking you is "There" was really so bad that it needed to go. Of course not. The idea of "The Other" -- other people, other places, other ideas -- is one of the things that allows for the sense of discovery that makes life exciting and fun. The idea that you could somehow remove that other, and make everyone totally connected all the time is not only complicated, but also pretty disturbing.
The world is getting more homogeneous, through increased communication and through other social and economic pressures. Designers are needed to help users to preserve what little "There" we have left. To grow it. To help users to discover it, and use it in powerful new ways.
We can't let "There" go away. Place is part of what lets us know we exist.
Copyright 2004-2006 Dominic Muren and IDFuel Team