During Luke W’s talk at UI16 this week in Boston, he spoke a lot about location-aware services on mobile devices. Changes in technology make building handheld devices faster, better, and cheaper. Luke explained that technology has advanced so far that it’s cheaper to include than leave out wifi antennae in these devices. As a result, we are starting to see products like Amazon’s $79 Kindle, which Luke referred to as a “disposable Web browser.” The proliferation of handheld devices means more GPS-enabled gadgets in our hands, in our pockets, in our purses, and in our backpacks at all times.
He asked the crowd to list our favorite new applications for mobile devices. He wanted to know what amazed us. My answer was simpler than most. I was amazed by others’ responses: Apple’s new app can Find My Friends; Groupon and airlines can scan the bar code on my iPhone as a proof of purchase or boarding pass; Yelp provides a street view of restaurants nearby; banks accept check deposits via pictures taken with a mobile phone; Instapaper allows you to scroll through a book simply by tilting the device; digital snow globes get all shook up using the accelerometer. The list went on for quite some time while many jaws, including mine, dropped in awe.
Luke spoke about an app (I’ve forgotten the name of it) that will text his wife with his location and his estimated time of arrival at home based on current traffic, weather, and road conditions. Most of us smiled and nodded in assent or encouragement. The married people in the room laughed knowingly as he explained he uses this application when he is late for a meeting or late for his wife. And then he went on to note that, for him, this is a great service, as long as he could turn it off [the location-based services / location-aware tracking] when he was doing something he considered private. He raised both hands, tracing quotation marks in the air to punctuate the word “private.” That’s when my jaw really dropped.
I was with him up to the point where he made bunny ears around the word private. A low twitter filled the pause that followed. Strangely that laughter sounded like approval, rather than nervousness or anxiety. I was floored by that. The question that hung in my head was, “When did privacy become a thing we put sarcastic air quotes around?” When did we get sarcastic about, rather than defensive of, our privacy? After all, the expression is “our right to privacy.” At what point did we start taking for granted that we have no privacy rather than taking for granted that our privacy is a right established by the U.S. Supreme Court so long ago that most of us believe it is part of the Constitution?
I don’t have answers to these questions. I suspect it has something to do with cultural shifts, the Freedom of Information Act which recently made public tens of thousands of documents relevant to politics when the Baby Boomers were most politically active (really active, like let’s-get-out-the-vote active, not voting-with-their-money active like they are now), the WikiLeaks scandal, and of course the Patriot Act which allows the government to track your library checkout list. This technology has become so ubiquitous, agencies in the federal government are arguing that they be allowed to track criminal suspects using GPS without a warrant.
Baby Boomers and following generations can use GPS-enabled devices to keep track of their kids at all times. And they are. According to another NPR story, they have been since 2006. And it seems like teenagers everywhere are habituated to and accepting of this behavior from their parents. Kids today (here I go again, dating myself) won’t know what life was like without maps at their fingertips and Foursquare check-ins. Privacy is not a concern for them because they don’t know what it was like before every part of their lives was for public consumption. Every word and action is now just another piece of content on the Internet.
This shift is likely also related to the convenience of these location-based services. In a world full of information (so much to read, so little time) that can leave us all feeling a bit fatigued, it’s nice to know where we are and where we are going and who will be there when we get there. For busy multi-taskers and anybody on the go, we no longer have to plan ahead before leaving the house. We don’t even need the address of that new place in Cambridge in that unfamiliar neighborhood where we hate to drive. Forget about printing directions before we leave the office. (There’s neither ink nor paper in the printer anyway.) Now we have Siri to tell us where the restaurant is and how to get there. She can even send a text message to our dinner date via voice dictation if we’re running late.
And now that I’ve summarized both sides of this argument, I’m going to walk away from it. It’s not like me to ask a question without positing some kind of conclusion in response. But I’m going to do that this time. Mostly because I don’t have a clear position, not yet anyway. And because this Read Write Web article summed it up for me. “Now it’s strange to think that your phone might not know where you are at this very moment.” It’s strange to learn that usage of location-based services among American adults is only at 25%. For now.