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The End of Cyberspace

I’ve been working on this end of cyberspace idea for a while, and occasionally posted about it on my other blog; this blog, in contrast, is just over a month old. However, I think there’s a good case to be made for the utility of special-topic research blogs— or perhaps more generally, of using social media (including blogs) as research tools.

For one thing, turning research into a form of public performance encourages you to keep at it. One of the great problems with scholarly work, or almost any kind of writing, is that it’s easy to get bogged down, blocked, run yourself around in circles, or just put the project down for a little (and then a little longer, and a little longer). Talking about it makes it harder for those things to happen.

More important, it makes public and sharable things— citations, notes, reflections on other people’s work, connections you draw between your work and others’— that in the pre-Web scholarship world were almost always private, or sharable only with a small circle of colleagues. Any given piece of content from this flow is going to be interesting only to a tiny number of other people; but to them, it could be very interesting.

With a more conventional specialist academic project, the value of a blog is likely to be reduced by the fact that you already know everyone else who’s interested in your work (or everyone who’s opinion is really going to matter when promotion time comes around). For interdisciplinary projects, in contrast, a blog can serve as a tool for attracting attention across disciplinary and geographical lines. The people who are most interested in this project, and have made the most thoughtful comments on it, are people I knew only very peripherally or not at all when I started the blog.

I’m also finding that Technorati and del.icio.us are more useful than I expected. I’ve used Technorati to follow references to this blog, the Wired article, and the term «end of cyberspace.» Essentially, it lets you follow your ideas, see who else is thinking about them, and survey the reactions they’re generating (ranging from positive, to thoughtful, to not so positive, to negative, to more negative). Del.icio.us, because it lets you follow keywords rather than specific hyperlinks or exact terms, has a slightly different, more diffuse function: it’s more a tool for sampling the collective unconscious than recording specific conversations. (If Del.icio.us is a Jungian analyst, Technorati is an NSA wiretap.)

In my old academic life, you rarely heard much about your articles, and the signals you did get that others had read them— comments from people at conferences, reprint requests, citations in other people’s work— were all the more precious for their rarity. Consequently, the ability to see how people are reacting to your work in real time— to turn an imagined community of scholars into a conversational circle— is as amazing as being able to iChat across the Atlantic.

Finally, this reinforces an argument I’ve been making in my work at the Institute: that information technologies often begin as tools for increasing efficiency and productivity, but morph into tools for enhancing sociability (without losing those earlier functions). The telephone started out as a tool for businessmen: early users were even warned to keep women off the line, since they’d just gossip. It took a couple decades for telephone companies to realize that there was a lot of money in people gossiping. Likewise, cell phones were first sold to busy executives and highly mobile workers (like sales reps); now my kids ask when they’ll be old enough to have cell phones. The personal computer? Efficiency tool— you can write papers, balance your checkbook— to social tool— you can IM with friends, play Everquest. Part of the value of setting up Technorati watchlists resides in the content they capture for you; but the deeper value, I suspect, will come from the people they help connect you to.

This begins to move you to a model of scholarly performance in which the value resides not exclusively in the finished, published work, but is distributed across a number of usually non-competitive media. If I ever do publish a book on the end of cyberspace, I seriously doubt that anyone who’s encountered the blog will think, «Well, I can read the notes, I don’t need to read the book.» The final product is more like the last chapter of a mystery. You want to know how it comes out.

It could ultimately point to a somewhat different model for both doing and evaluating scholarship: one that depends a little less on peer-reviewed papers and monographs, and more upon your ability to develop and maintain a piece of intellectual territory, and attract others to it— to build an interested, thoughtful audience. Since the former are getting more expensive for everyone (academic journals have become stunningly expensive, and some universities are starting to rebel against the high prices publishers are trying to charge), and the latter are getting harder to produce (university presses are less willing to subsidize the publication of books that are guaranteed to lose money), such changes may be in the cards anyway.

Of course, there are plenty of potential downsides to such a model: it could be license for people to perpetually tweak the details of projects, and never put a stake in the ground; there are opportunities for gaming a system that measures popularity and the quality of responses; and it might favor trendy, easier-to-describe subjects over harder ones. Then again, you could make the same criticisms of the current system.

[To the tune of Steppenwolf, «Magic Carpet Ride (Single),» from the album «Steppenwolf the Second».]

Technorati Tags: cyberspace, end of cyberspace, history of science, postacademic, work

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Via Jonas Bergenudd’s re: urban (which I wish I could actually read), this catch: a study that argues that ceiling height affects the way people think.

“When a person is in a space with a 10-foot ceiling, they will tend to think more freely, more abstractly,” said [marketing professor Joan] Meyers-Levy. “They might process more abstract connections between objects in a room, whereas a person in a room with an 8-foot ceiling will be more likely to focus on specifics.”

The research demonstrates that variations in ceiling height can evoke concepts that, in turn, affect how consumers process information. The authors theorized that when reasonably salient, a higher versus a lower ceiling can stimulate the concepts of freedom versus confinement, respectively. This causes people to engage in either more free-form, abstract thinking or more detail-specific thought. Thus, depending on what the task at hand requires, the consequences of the ceiling could be positive or negative.

Another example of how our surroundings and technologies affect the way we think, whether we know it or not.

Technorati Tags: architecture, design, office, space

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A couple months ago, we bought Nintendo DS machines for the kids. Of course, before we got them, my wife and I talked about whether the kids were old enough for the games, and whether we really wanted them to have access to the technology at all. Finally, we decided to buy them, but to put some firewalls around their game-playing time. (I later learned that they’re instruments of Satan, but by then both kids were experts at Mario Kart, and it seemed a shame to waste all that skill.)

One thing I did not expect was this: my son now wants to learn to read so he can play Pokemon Diamond, which is full of captions and written instructions. (Without literacy, he’s stuck in the Mario Kart and Lego Star Wars ghetto.) Of course we read to the kids constantly— my son insisted we read the last chapter of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets this morning, rather than watch cartoons— but I think this may be the first practical use of literacy my son has encountered. He doesn’t have to pay his own bills, figure out who to vote for, read nutrition labels, or interpret traffic signs. But he does want to conquer the Pokemon world, and to do that, you need to be able to read.

Maybe everything bad really is good for you.

[To the tune of Led Zeppelin, «Rock and Roll,» from the album «Led Zeppelin (Disc 2)».]

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The End of Cyberspace

» If it has a shape, you can map it. from J. LeRoy’s Evolving Web
I’ve created several posts over the last six months about ways we might map conversation, thought, and information. I have been focusing on the use of information. How we use it to tell a story. Alex Pang, in the meantime, [Read More]

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The End of Cyberspace

I’ve been reading up on rapid prototyping technologies, and came across an interesting argument: that the use of 3-D printers, which allow students to make quick physical copies of things they’ve designed on computers, is making engineering cool, and helping kids develop spatial skills.

Timothy Jump, a teacher at Benilde-St. Margaret’s High School, a private college preparatory school in St. Louis, Missouri… [says], «Until 3D printing came along, we were unable to show young people the beauty of the engineering process, taking an initial idea all the way to completion, until late in their educational experience…. 3D printing stimulates a student’s mechanical-spatial awareness in ways that textbooks cannot.»

Don Jalbert, a CAD/CAM mechanical design instructor at the Lewiston Regional Technical Center in Lewiston, Maine, says 3D printers can help young people realize they have a knack for engineering. «When I taught CAD 10 years ago, the concepts were wholly theoretical because the students could not touch or feel the objects they created. Now with the 3D printer, students can do much more than draw a part. They can evaluate it, refine it, assess how it fits in a larger assembly, and hand it to people. The 3D printer is a great recruiting tool for getting students excited about engineering.»

When you think about it, massive multiplayer games are essentially fun-ride versions of CAD and CAAD systems: part of the appeal of Second Life is that you can build all kinds of interesting virtual stuff, from bodies to buildings. It may be that, in the long run, the phenomenon of video games eroding kids’ mechanical or spatial skills will be replaced with a pattern in which they translate the design and engineering skills they learn in virtual worlds into the physical world, through the mediation of 3D printing technology. Just a thought.

There’s no getting away from atoms.

Technorati Tags: design, education, end of cyberspace, prototyping

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Goodbye, virtual world. Hello, new world.

« links for 2007-12-15 | Main | links for 2007-12-19 »

From an article on Donald Norman:

[D]espite two decades of lectures from Dr. Norman on the virtue of “user-centered” design and the danger of a disease called “featuritis,” people will still be cursing at their gifts this Christmas. And the worse news is that the gadgets of Christmas future will be even harder to command, because we and our machines are about to go through a rocky transition as the machines get smarter and take over more tasks. As Dr. Norman says in his new book, “The Design of Future Things,” what we’ll have here is a failure to communicate. “It would be fine,” he told me, “if we had intelligent devices that would work well without any human intervention. My clothes dryer is a good example: it figures out when the clothes are dry and stops. But we are moving toward intelligent machines that still require human supervision and correction, and that is where the danger lies — machines that fight with us over how to do things.” You can’t explain to your car’s navigation system why you dislike its short, efficient route because the scenery is ugly. Your refrigerator may soon know exactly what food it contains, what you’ve already eaten today and what your calorie limit is, but it won’t be capable of an intelligent dialogue about your need for that piece of cheesecake.

To get along with machines, Dr. Norman suggests we build them using a lesson from Delft, a town in the Netherlands where cyclists whiz through crowds of pedestrians in the town square. If the pedestrians try to avoid an oncoming cyclist, they’re liable to surprise him and collide, but the cyclist can steer around them just fine if they ignore him and keep walking along at the same pace. “Behaving predictably, that’s the key,” Dr. Norman said. “If our smart devices were understandable and predictable, we wouldn’t dislike them so much.” Instead of trying to anticipate our actions, or debating the best plan, machines should let us know clearly what they’re doing.

Donald Norman on predictability in devices

From an article on Donald Norman:

[D]espite two decades of lectures from Dr. Norman on the virtue of “user-centered” design and the danger of a disease called “featuritis,” people will still be cursing at their gifts this Christmas. And the worse news is that the gadgets of Christmas future will be even harder to command, because we and our machines are about to go through a rocky transition as the machines get smarter and take over more tasks. As Dr. Norman says in his new book, “The Design of Future Things,” what we’ll have here is a failure to communicate. “It would be fine,” he told me, “if we had intelligent devices that would work well without any human intervention. My clothes dryer is a good example: it figures out when the clothes are dry and stops. But we are moving toward intelligent machines that still require human supervision and correction, and that is where the danger lies — machines that fight with us over how to do things.” You can’t explain to your car’s navigation system why you dislike its short, efficient route because the scenery is ugly. Your refrigerator may soon know exactly what food it contains, what you’ve already eaten today and what your calorie limit is, but it won’t be capable of an intelligent dialogue about your need for that piece of cheesecake.

To get along with machines, Dr. Norman suggests we build them using a lesson from Delft, a town in the Netherlands where cyclists whiz through crowds of pedestrians in the town square. If the pedestrians try to avoid an oncoming cyclist, they’re liable to surprise him and collide, but the cyclist can steer around them just fine if they ignore him and keep walking along at the same pace. “Behaving predictably, that’s the key,” Dr. Norman said. “If our smart devices were understandable and predictable, we wouldn’t dislike them so much.” Instead of trying to anticipate our actions, or debating the best plan, machines should let us know clearly what they’re doing.

  • About the end of cyberspace

    Cyberspace is a «metaphor we live by,» born two decades ago at the intersection of computers, networks, ideas, and experience. It has reflected our experiences with information technology, and also shaped the way we think about new technologies and the challenges they present. It had been a vivid and useful metaphor for decades; but in a rapidly-emerging world of mobile, always-on information devices (and eventually cybernetic implants, prosthetics, and swarm intelligence), the rules that define the relationship between information, places, and daily life are going to be rewritten. As the Internet becomes more pervasive— as it moves off desktops and screen and becomes embedded in things, spaces, and minds— cyberspace will disappear.

  • This blog is about what happens next. It’s about the end of cyberspace, but more important, about what new possibilities will emerge as new technologies, interfaces, use practices, games, legal theory, regulation, and culture adjust— and eventually dissolve— the boundaries between the virtual and physical worlds.

  • Alex Soojung-Kim Pang is an historian of science and futurist.

    ping Pang

  • Part of the Corante Innovation Hub.

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HP announced a new kind of tag for putting digital information on things. Called Memory Spots, they’re somewhat like RFID tags in basic structure— they’re passively powered, have an antenna and memory— but add a small processor and a lot more storage space. The New York Times highlights some differences between Memory Spots and RFID, both in technology and potential use:

In contrast to RFID tags, which store only a few hundred or few thousand bits of information, and which are readable from distances of tens of feet, the H.P. Memory Spots can be read only from extremely close range and store up to hundreds of thousands of bytes of information. Like RFID tags, Memory Spots are powered from radio fields emitted by reading devices, but the H.P. researchers said they would have new applications beyond the typical supply chain and identification functions of RFID chips. Ultimately, executives said, the reading and writing technology could be added to smart phones or other inexpensive handheld devices. The Memory Spot chips could be priced as low as 10 cents each if they were manufactured in volume, Mr. Taub said….

One of the advantages of the Memory Spot is that the 1.4-millimeter-square chips contain a small processor and as a result have the ability to offer data protection features.

Interestingly, that «putting bits out in the world» line is getting lots of play: this morning’s HP press release is titled «HP Unveils Revolutionary Wireless Chip that Links the Digital and Physical Worlds,» and features this bit:

“The Memory Spot chip frees digital content from the electronic world of the PC and the Internet and arranges it all around us in our physical world,” said Ed McDonnell, Memory Spot project manager, HP Labs.

However, many of the applications they suggest are pretty RFID-like:

Some of the potential applications include storing medical records on a hospital patient’s wristband; providing audio-visual supplements to postcards and photos; helping fight counterfeiting in the pharmaceutical industry; adding security to identity cards and passports; and supplying additional information for printed documents.

Currently there are RFID-enabled hospital wristbands, but they don’t have patient records on them: they’re just an ID device. Likewise, there’s been plenty of talk about RFID being used in counterfeiting, document identification, and passports. It’ll be interesting to see how and where RFID and Memory Spots actually compete. There are four obvious questions:

  • Will Spots (a nice alternative to «tag») will operate on the same frequencies as RFID tags, or require entirely different infrastructure? If they’re interoperable, and if RFID deployment is fast enough, that could affect some choices regarding spot use.
  • When does it make sense to have large amounts of data embedded in an object, instead of associated with it? HP suggests users could «[s]end a traditional holiday postcard to family and friends with a chip containing digital pictures of a vacation, plus sounds and even video clips.» In a world of YouTube, have we passed the point where sending
  • Will Spots be more secure? On-board processing and the short read-range suggests the possibility greater immunity to hacks, if they’re well-designed.
  • When will it be worth the extra cost? HP estimates that the cost of Spots could fall to a dime per, with volume production— still far above the dreamworld of the penny RFID tag.

I think there’s also a bigger trend that one can extrapolate from this data-Spot.

We think of RFID tags as new and unique, but that’s wrong on both cases. RFID tags have been around for quite a while; what’s new is the emergence of a couple standards that promise to make them cheaper, more ubiquitous, and easier to use (or abuse). They’re also not unique; it’s better to think of them as the first-to-market examples of a new family or class of devices, with varying levels of intelligence, memory, and range.

Together, they’re aimed at a functional merger of bits and atoms— that embed data in things, facilitates the real-time/real-space retrieval of information, and chips away at the familiar distinction between the «real world» and the «online world.» Cypak AB’s disposable computer, which is more like an RFID tag on steroids than a competitor to PCs; Ted Selker’s work on RFID signatures; and dozens of other prototypes and early adopter products are building on Wifi, GPS, IPv6, and other infrastructure to enable a digital-physical convergence.

Technorati Tags: digital-physical, end of cyberspace, pervasive computing, RFID, ubicomp

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(Notes from Mobile Mash-Up 2007. As usual, these are my notes, for what they’re worth.)

Moderator: Serena Glover, Tango Matthew Rothenberg, Flickr. Jessica Alter, Bebo.

Kevin Yen, YouTube.

SG: Where do you see communities going? Broader with less depth, lots of focused communities, what?

MR: People tell stories through photographs; we’re enabling that. JA: The purpose of most networks is to facilitate self-expression. People go to Flickr to interact, but also to express themselves: they say things, and have people to say them to.

KY: Groups within Flickr are forming around specific interests; we provide breadth, and let people create their own depth.

SG: How will open APIs change the nature of communities? Good, bad, change the value proposition?

KY: The cool opportunity is to develop one app that works across several platforms, eliminating versioning work (which «is a big drag on creativity»). Little apps may clutter the experience. JA: We’re surprised by what people turn out to like. Multiplatform development is good for developers. Downsides: something like Open Social probably won’t be as deep as the applications developed for Facebook; user experience can be diluted and made more confusing by a proliferation of apps; you’ve got to give up some control.

MR: Flickr was built on open APIs, and they’ve always wanted to make it as easy as possible to move data into and out of the service. Open APIs don’t excuse us from having to moderate and watch what these APIs do, or what people do on them: if application developers subvert the tacit social contract between Flickr and its users, then we’ve got to step in.

JA: Needs to be a real focus on the user experience. Mobile «is an inherently different beast than the Web.» (What differentiates genuinely mobile networks from ones that have a mobile portal?) KY: Utility is obviously very important, and people will be willing to trade a measure of convenience or ease of use for functionality. MR: Interaction of mobility with social interaction sites: ease of accessing or creating content. «The next generation is creating services that augment your experience in the real world.» Most current services are about taking you away from your social context, but social context matters immensely for mobile phone use.

JA: Mobile phones matter a lot more than PCs in other parts of the world: you’ve gotta pay attention to that.

SG: Do you think existing communities will jump to mobile?

KY: «Flash communities» of people who are in the same event— like this conference. From taking pictures to live streaming media.
JA: Mobile social networks have a Web component; you’ve got to design for both. «Taking your real life and creating a mobile experience» around it will be really important.

SG: Web communities are global, and users play a big role shaping those communities and their norms. Will mobile communities be more local, or have other kinds of social norms than obtain in Web communities?

KY: In YouTube, we’re still learning: for a long time it was all in English, and we’re starting to localize in the UK, Japan, and elsewhere. Even still, a huge amount of the traffic goes to the U.S.
MR: Flickr has been a global site since the beginning, and we’re trying to figure out how to make it possible for users to group and wall themselves off when they really want to— or protect themselves from things they consider objectionable.

Technorati Tags: community, end of cyberspace, Mobile Mash-Up 2007, mobility, social software, Web 2.0

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An article in the New York Times on experiments using what sounds like Gordon Bell’s MyLifeBits technology «to help people with Alzheimer’s and other memory disorders.»

The concept was simple: using digital pictures and audio to archive an experience like a weekend visit from the grandchildren, creating a summary of the resulting content by picking crucial images, and reviewing them periodically to awaken and strengthen the memory of the event….

In Pittsburgh, researchers had Mr. Reznick go on three excursions with a Sensecam around his neck, and a voice recorder in his shirt pocket and a GPS unit. On one trip, he went to an exhibition of glass sculptures with his wife, Sylvia, his son and a granddaughter.

The Sensecam takes hundreds of pictures in a short period. When researchers began exploring it as a memory aid a few years ago, they had patients and caregivers look at all the pictures together.

I’m not surprised that scientists would be using this technology for Alzheimer’s patients. If today’s early adopters are twentysomethings, in the next couple decades we’re going to see a shift: the most augmented, information technology-intensive Americans are likely to be the elderly, who will be using these technologies (often embedded in more ordinary-looking everyday devices) to battle memory loss, stay independent, and of course post pictures to their Facebook accounts.

[To the tune of Emerson Lake & Palmer, «Tarkus,» from the album Live at the Wheeling Civic Center (November 12 1977) (a 2-star song, imo).]

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In a recent article on experiments using automatic digital photography to improve the memories of Alzheimer’s patients, I was struck by these paragraphs:

When researchers began exploring it as a memory aid a few years ago, they had patients and caregivers look at all the pictures together.

Although the exercise helped improve retention of an experience, it was evident that a better way would be to focus on a few key images that might unlock the memories related to it. The interactive nature of that approach would give patients a greater sense of control over their recollections, and allow them to revisit past experiences rather than simply know they had happened.

They soon realized that the capriciousness of memory made answers elusive. For one subject, a donkey in the background of a barnyard photo brought back a flood of recollections. For another, an otherwise unremarkable landscape reminded the subject of a snowfall that had not been expected.

The idea that «the capriciousness of memory» would make efforts to automatically generate summaries of events difficult, mirrors my own experience: I have entire trips that I recall through a couple apparently random things— the look of a hotel room, what I had for dinner. Likewise, looking at an entire album of pictures doesn’t necessarily do much for me in terms of helping me remember more of an event.

I wonder if the scientists have tried getting their subjects to consciously manipulate those records afterwards— to make a photo album, for example— and see if that process of sorting helps improve recall. I remember trips much better if I write about them, or choose pictures to put online, much as I remember books better when I take notes on them. In fact, it’s safe to say that the ritual of going through pictures, tagging them, and uploading them has both made it easier for me to remember these places, and changed my view of the world.

Let me explain.

One of the Web services I use a lot is the photo sharing site Flickr (if you don’t believe me, just go to my account and see for yourself). I’m a fairly obsessive photographer, mainly because I like good pictures, but I’m not a very good one. With a film camera, you really pay for artistic mediocrity or technical clumsiness: you have to throw the same amount of money at a good picture as a bad. With digital cameras, on the other hand, you can play the lottery: take enough pictures, and some of them will accidentally be good. I’m also a doting father whose children aren’t old enough to put up a serious fight when I get out the camera. And finally, digital cameras are small enough to fit in a pocket, so my Canon PowerShot is always handy. I don’t have to plan to carry a camera with me: it’s one of the things I always have when I walk out the door.

One of my favorite features in Flickr is its mapper, which lets you tell Flickr where in the world your picture was taken. Essentially, you put a digital pin in an online map, much as you would in a real map. Flickr and Yahoo! Maps got together to provide the service in 2006, and since then I’ve become a slightly fanatical geotagger. It started out as pure geekdom: I’d written stuff about the future of geolocation services and information, so it seemed a good chance to play with a future I had already described. But now I do it because it’s a way to help me remember my pictures, and where I took them.

When I’m in a place, I like to walk. I want to know enough to stay out of bad neighborhoods, to find interesting ones, and to be aware of significant landmarks. I don’t want to miss the big attractions, but I also want the freedom to happen upon that perfect little cafe and pastry shop, or the brilliant bookstore that’s not in any of the guidebooks. (How many travelers define themselves as people who want to escape the boundaries of the guidebooks?) This style of wandering is one reason I absolutely love certain cities. In London, for example, you can’t go three blocks without coming upon something grand and historic, a charming little square, or an interesting piece of street life. You can never be sure which you’ll find. It’s one reason Samuel Johnson could say, when you’re tired of London you’re tired of life. Likewise, Singapore and Budapest reward walking, though for different reasons: Singapore is a kind of life-sized scenario of a prosperous, benevolently authoritarian, multicultural Asian Century could be like, with amazing food. Budapest is a wonderful Old European city, alternating twisty streets, grand boulevards, the magnificent Danube, and faded (but rapidly renovating) buildings and apartment blocks, with great coffee on every block.

So I like to wander. But once I’m back in my room, and have uploaded my pictures from the day, I want to reconstruct my path, and figure out where I’ve been. I used to do this on maps, tracing out my route with a highlighter. This wasn’t always very successful. It required remembering street names, knowing how many blocks it had been since I’d turned left last, or estimating how far I’d walked on the boulevard or embankment before stopping to take those pictures. Given that I often walk at night— my days are taken up with work— all this was tough. Putting that information onto a map that often was in an unfamiliar language didn’t make things easier, either.

But what turned me into a Flickr map fanatic? And what bigger lesson could that possibly hold?

The act of putting pictures on the Flickr map combines three different kinds of knowledge. First, it draws on your physical memory of travel and picture-taking. Second, it draws on your visual memory. And third, it connects those two kinds of knowledge and memory to a formal system, the logic of the map. Putting these together help you connect your personal, street-level view of a place with a higher-level, abstract understanding of it.

Consider picture-taking first. Like all forms of knowledge-creation, picture-taking is a physical activity as well as an intellectual or technical one, and that physicality can be something that helps fix in your memory the event of taking the picture. I have pictures of Wiamea Canyon, on the island of Kauai, that I can’t look at without being reminded of a long drive, and the pleasant contrast between the warmth of the coast and the chilly interior. I’d probably have long forgotten those sensations without the picture, and without the sensations I’d have a harder time placing the picture; but both memories live together and reinforce each other. Often the order of pictures in a photo stream can be used to reconstruct an evening’s path. Something in the distance in one picture is in the center of another, or a corner in one photo is turned in the next. With the visual cues that the photographs provide, combined with a few memories of turning down this street and that boulevard, and a couple landmarks as reference points, I can reconstruct my steps pretty accurately.

Flickr lets you put pictures on an ordinary street map, which is just a grid with street names, rivers, train lines, and the occasional park. Sometimes that’s enough information; but when it’s not, I switch to the satellite mode, which overlays aerial photographs atop the street map. I find that the satellite photographs let me establish much more precisely just where I was, what this photograph shows, and where it should go on the map. Without it, I can place pictures on the right block; with the satellite photos, I can get to within a few feet.

Of course, that requires knowing how to decode satellite photographs, and how to relate that information to my own experience. Figuring out how to connect what you see in your photograph to what’s on a satellite picture is a skill that we didn’t have to learn before. Unless you worked for the CIA or had a particularly sadistic geography teacher, you never had to make that connection; and until recently satellite photos weren’t easy for ordinary people to get. You could think of the Flickr mapping tool as a giant machine that gives people the chance to learn how to read satellite pictures. Maybe it’s a cartographic Ender’s Game, training a generation of open-source spooks who twenty years from now won’t be fooled by doctored military recon photos or what’s really scant evidence of wrongdoing.

Translating the ground-eye view of a landmark or city grid into an aerial view isn’t that hard, but it does need to be learned. London’s Trafalger Square becomes a set of long shadows (Nelson’s column) with a few shapes (the lions around it, the fountains nearby); Leicester Square, trees and park paths bordered by the blocky shapes of theatres. Sometimes you learn how big something really is («Boy, Suntec City really is HUGE»); when I’m trying to find someplace I’ve reached by tai or subway, the satellite photos are the only way to find it. I’ve walked some parts of Copenhagen, for example, but there are some things— the new Information Technology University, for example— that I’ve only driven to; I don’t know the ITU address, but because I know the shape of the building and have a pretty good sense of the buildings around it, I can find it on a satellite map.

Finally, putting the pictures on the map is a way to relate the personal experience and first person view to the formal, high-level view. They’re my memories, organized; and organizing my memories builds my knowledge of— and arguably my understanding of— the place and how it’s laid out. Given that I may post 500 pictures from a trip, and geocode almost all of them, the simple repetition of the exercise does a lot to fix in my mind what buildings are where, how places relate to each other, and what route I took when walking, say, from the Elizabeth Bridge to St. Stephen’s Church in downtown Budapest.

Right now this kind of mapping is mainly fun (believe it or not) and educational, but it will really pay off in a couple years, when I can go back to city with my e-paper travel journal, equipped with wifi and GPS. So equipped, I’ll be able to call up those pictures in situ: see what Piccadilly Square looked like the last time I was there, or see exactly where in Singapore I had those rice noodles so memorable I Fickred them. And I can see where I haven’t been, since pictures serve as visual crumbs, dropped on the map to mark my earlier travels.