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Opening Remarks for Debate at Creative Crossings 26/4/2004
Giles Lane

Minna Tarka: What is at stake when we talk about location, locatedness, location-based or -aware technologies or locative media?

Well perhaps the focus on ‘location’ itself is misleading.
The way location as a concept is currently used suggests a specificity that in no way reflects the complex relationships to place and space which we enjoy.

It seems to me that we are hampered by a discourse that revolves around technological determinacy and in itself reflects the fundamental misconceptions of location based services of the 1990s. Namely that until the first experiments with real services were run the model proposed 'anytime anywhere' access to standard data services. What was missing was local context – that a location based service should reflect the place it referred to, something of the granularity of our streets and communities. Now we seem to be on the verge of a similar misconception, driven by a blinkered desire to simply lock digital content to the most banal definition of place – i.e. the longitude and latitude coordinates that specify a location.

Another misconception which is already apparent is the problem of the device. That ‘location’ is in fact no longer contingent on the subjective person but on a device which they carry, and secondly that such a device might be theirs alone and not shared by a community or part of a group activity.

For instance, if I stand on the pavement and take a picture of a person or a building some distance, but not far, away, what is the constitutive location? Is it where the device is, and therefore me? Or is it where the focus of my attention is? And if it is the latter, how useful is the longitude and latitude of the device?

Alternatively, consider accessing some location based information. Being mobile I’m walking up a street, something catches my eye about 50 metres ahead, but off down a side street. My device cannot know where my focus of attention is and thus its ability to capture a long/lat position is limited to its own position, and not the context of the place.

Over the last four years we’ve been exploring many of these issues, creating prototypes and working with people from many walks of life. Our emerging understanding of location is that it is both contingent and liquid, always in a process of becoming. It hinges less on fixed coordinates than on human to human relationships, both those that are spoken and those that are implicit and unspoken. We have come to believe that place is more communicative of the social and cultural construction of our environments than an emphasis on location, and our research and experiments demonstrate tht it is as much a group or community activity as that of the individual.

We tend not to describe Urban Tapestries as ‘locative media’ because fundamentally it is not about media at all – it is about human to human relationships structured around fluid notions of place and identity.
We have focused not on delivering specific technologies but on trying to understand why people might use these mobile and pervasive, context and place-aware technologies; and what they might do with them in mundane everyday settings. Ours is primarily a social and cultural research initiative – but we also believe that the best way to understand an idea is to model it, to build prototypes to test our assumptions, and engage other people in dialogues that stretch our own perceptions and the languages used to communicate them.

So what is at stake?
Well, quite simply, everything is to play for – we can embrace the richness and complexity of the world around us and try to build systems that augment it and utilise the major infrastructures that are currently being put in place. We can build systems that encourage action, agency and authorship of the digital landscapes we are coming to inhabit, in addition to enjoying and appreciating them.
And on the other hand we can follow the uncertain and binaristic trajectory of technology, and remain consumers of someone else’s vision of the world.

This simple dichotomy is for me illustrated by the diverging notions of place (what we have termed elsewhere liquid geography), and location specificity – which to me at least implies staticness and rigidity.


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