Digital Citizenship LIVE

Keynote for the Digital Fair of the Australian College of Educators, Geelong Grammar School, 16 April 2009. The full text of the talk is here.

World as Database

I.

The idea that the world is a database has a more distinguished provenance than just Google Earth. Back in the 1960s, R. Buckminster “Bucky” Fully proposed the Geosphere, a scale model of the world, 500m in diameter, and thus big enough that anyone could look onto it and make out their home.

The idea, Fuller thought, was to contextualize man in his environment. In doing that, he believed we would have a greater sense of the web of relationships into which we are embedded.

Even the natural world is a database of sorts, just ask a botanist or zoologist; each area has its own climate, soils, flora and fauna. All of this information is there, in some sense, but, for now, is revealed only to those with the education to keep the facts close at hand. That education could reside in the mind of an indigenous person, or in the mind of a dedicated scientist. (And lets not forget the amateurs, who often excel in one area or another.)

Here’s a basic problem: knowledge resident inside grey matter – or locked away within books, and lacking geo-context – is just too hard for us to grasp, search or absorb.

What is needed is an interface to this information; like the “cathedrals of memory” which served the ancient poets, we need an interface which can remind us of the thing itself, keeping all this information neatly at hand.

If we could walk through a landscape, and have this information presented to us, because it had been stored by geo-context (GPS and GPRS would do this, and the new generation of 3G mobile handsets provide both) we would have an immediate experience of knowledge; in other words, a moment of understanding within the environment.

That’s what Fuller wanted, and that’s what’s now possible.

II

The world of man is wholly artificial, in that everything within it is an artifact, a product of human activity. Civilization is entirely artificial. And, more often than not, when we travel, we journey from the comfortable artifice of home into an artifice created by other hands, other minds, and other cultures. Travel broadens the mind because it exposes us to other possibilities, other ways that the cultural norms could be, given different initial conditions.

What we need, as human beings, when we journey into foreign norms, are “handholds’, the points which can serve as translation between the world-as-we-know-it and the world-as-it-is-around us. That’s what a good travel guide, or good travel book does. That traveling companion is like the parent who holds your hand as you step into the deep end of the pool. The benefit of experience is that it bolsters the traveler’s self-confidence.

We can’t always afford a travel guide; we can always have a travel book, but the trouble with a travel book is that it’s often obsolete by the time it reaches publication. The world is dynamic; a book is anything but. Thus travel books progressively diverge from reality, sometimes with hilarious (or tragic) consequences. Books are also of fixed size; you can’t carry around with you a book that would tell you everything you might need to know about the United States, or California, or even San Francisco. There’s just too much there there. This means that the travel book is the equivalent of a photograph, with the same lack of dimensionality. You can possess one view of a moment in time, but there is no depth, nothing behind it.

So the Web comes along, which promises us something more, something dynamic (if not quite portable), and infinitely extensible. A website can be as deep an dense as required – just look at Wikipedia. It can reflect instantaneous changes in the outside world. It can be created collaboratively. And it can be accessed, instantaneously, from almost anywhere on Earth.

This set of characteristics sounds nearly perfect, and it is, with one big, important exception – the Web is not portable. Most people will not travel with an entire database in their laptop, updated minute by minute. Most people will not rush into an Internet café at every single opportunity to keep apprised of the latest developments in travel space or to post their own critiques. It’s too much work and too much bother, for too little gain. This means that the best efforts – such as Thorne Tree – are still essentially static entities; someone gets in front of a computer, uses the service, and keeps a snapshot of what they’ve read in their own head as they travel. It’s better than nothing, but it’s hardly good enough. Travel is about mobility; why should travel services be any different?

III.

All of this work is converging, as it inevitably must, on the mobile telephone. Already there are more mobile telephones in the world than Internet-attached computers; there are more mobile phones in use in China than there are people in the United States. And the Chinese are probably buying a quarter billion mobile telephones a year. (Many of these are used models, as people sell old handsets to buy new ones.)

The modern mobile handset has about as much computing power as a computer of the mid-1990s; that may seem insubstantial by the standards of today, but mobile handsets are evolving far more rapidly than personal computers; within a decade there won’t be much difference between them. Already the mobile handset is Internet connected, via GPRS or 3G packet-switched networks. I have a “Mega Cap” plan from Vodafone AU, which gives me about 3 1/2 hours of GPRS access per day, at a fixed price. I never even come close to using it, but I’m working on services which I hope will start to eat into that enormous data budget. In a few years it won’t seem enormous at all; it might even seem a bit stingy. But for the moment I can have a taste of the future.

Devices like the ever-connected, ultra-powerful, mobile telephone are what the traveler of the next decade will be carrying with them. Already I can run Google Earth on my mobile. Given the amount of processing it takes to run Google Earth – it chugs along on my G4 iBook – it does a fine job. If my mobile had an integral GPS or Galileo receiver, my mobile Google Earth could track my movements in real time. (This can’t be very far away; I’d be altogether surprised if someone hasn’t done that already.)

Google Earth is not just a visualization of the earth; it is, in fact, integrated into Google’s planetary database. The integration is relatively loose right now, but that will only grow with time. It is the place to place everything about place. And travel is all about place.

The 21st century traveler travels with a mobile phone; the growth of GSM/GPRS networks – even the US has them, finally – means that one handset will work everywhere (though not necessarily inexpensively). The mobile is not the preferred interface to the Internet, though this is more of an interface issue than anything else; this is why Google Earth Mobile is so very interesting. Google Earth presents an interface which is intuitive, and which provides a front-end to the nearly-infinite Google database. When people learn how to put these two together, blend the database and make it mobile, we’ll have the first “killer app” for the mobile. And it’s a traveler’s essential, as much as a phrase book, or traveler’s checks.