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Information Starved in SF

All of my adult life, I’ve been information-rich. I am fairly social and keep in touch with friends over time. I know my way around a computer. I understand how the internet works. I have been able to help many people find what they were looking for and I’m usually well prepared (information-wise) when entering a new situation.

Last weekend, I found myself on the opposite end of the spectrum.

I found myself continually on the short end of the information assumptions held native by those who live/work in the Bay Area. I don’t have an iPhone. I don’t have ubiquitous access to my email and twitter streams and google maps and upcoming.org. I realized I was seeing what ‘normal’ will look like in a few years when we all have our “People in our Pocket” and access to flows of information that seamlessly aid our movement through space. I feel hyper-connected when at my desktop or on my laptop with an internet connection, but I haven’t experienced this with a mobile phone yet. I expect I’ll have to remedy this in the next few months.

The clarity came most strikingly when I realized where I was driving in my rental car was not on my paper-based mapping solution. It seems the address I was headed towards was 3-8 blocks off the edge of my map. A sense of profound helplessness was fleeting, but present. I don’t go anywhere that’s not mapped these days. I know what things look like before I get there. I’ve done the research on the hotels in an area or items on the menu before I arrive. I’ve usually also read the reviews. I exist in a communal flow of information, and all of a sudden, I was alone, ironically, in one of the most connected cities on the planet.

Reflecting on that moment, I realized that what was happening was only as clear as it was because my destination was *just* off my map. The line was cleanly drawn between knowing and not knowing – between having the knowledge and confidence in that situation and being forced to navigate with my eyes and under-exercised landmark muscle memory. I was thrown back to ‘pre-web’ days. It felt like 100 years.

I thought about Songphan’s dissertation topic of Information flows during crisis/emergency. He’s looking at how, during emergencies, the information hierarchy is inverted – the people at the center of the action have the least information. He logged into his IM account during the recent coup in Thailand and his screen lit up with messages from home, people who had little/no information but they knew he had CNN. He became the hub for the flow that day – and he was 7000 miles away.

The interaction with our own physical surroundings is being outsourced. How many times have you called someone from the road and asked them to look up a phone number or the directions to where you were headed?

It was strange to experience the inversion so directly. No map. No directions. I truly expect it to be one of the last times it ever happens to me by accident. Only with intent will I find myself without the ability to ‘know’ where I am and how to get where I want to go.

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  1. Fred | February 16, 2008 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    And what about when we got lost in SF and I used my iPhone to get us back on track? Haha! I am information rich.

    I’m not sure that I agree that we’re all going to be hyperconnected, but I do agree the information we’ll be able to source from devices we carry is going to represent an evolutionary step forward. Perhaps its useful to delineate the two. Ubiquitous email = boring. Ubiquitous rich information = fun.