Wednesday, October 3, 2007

An Information Rich Environment: What will it Say?

We will soon be living in an age when we will carry devices or (horrors!) wear implants, that will read information from objects in our environment. I for one am very concerned about just what the nature of this information will be. Like all of our new technologies, these new developments hold both great promise and potential peril.

As someone who has studied and written about natural systems, the built environment, urban history and landscape design, I have often dreamed of the day when this type of information was readily accessible to people in their environment. Think of it. As you passed over a river on a bridge you could access a video showing the formation of the river valley through geologic time, or you could see the water shed depicted on a three dimensional topography map. Wouldn't this help us appreciate the fact that what someone puts on the ground 100 miles up stream eventually gets carried down the river and out to sea? Or what if we could call up a database of indigenous plants and animals from any geographic location, to help us identify the local wildflowers or sort out which were the invasive species? I have always felt that a greater awareness of a locales membership in a larger bio-region would expand our understanding of ecologic interdependence and give us a broader interpretation of the idea of home.

In terms of the built environment we can learn fascinating details about the development of a region or community, from historic industries to building types and social customs to school cultures. The opportunities for real knowledge are endless, and it is possible that our experience of our environment can be enriched and enhanced. Real-time data could offer us insight into our energy consumption, the patterns of movement within our city, or the efficiency of our recycling efforts, for instance. The data rich possibilities are only now being conceived. Of course, it is also possible that all of this information overload will yield only a mediated experience and our devices and individual information consumption will serve only to separate us from any real interaction with our surroundings. We will have to know how to find the proper balance and to share and interact in a real and meaningful way. It seems likely that small-scale economies, personalized service, public festivals and spaces, etc. will become even more cherished rather than less so.

But, as we all know, the world of commerce sees the potential in these technologies too. There have already been experiments where targeted ads have been sent to individuals' cell phones as they pass certain stores. Does this seem intrusive? Yes, I believe most of us would say yes. There will be those few who say they welcome the information, but more advertising is not something most will be asking for. The discouraging part is what the most popular choices are. Are we condemned to suffer the tyranny of the masses? As the current media consolidation phenomena continues, we are told time and again that we are getting what we ask for. But the truth is we aren't given a choice. This argument is getting old and tired. It is being used to justify everything from McDonalds to McMansions and it just rings hollow. If the choices are elevated we will make better choices.

If we are given a menu of information choices, let's hope we choose those types of information that expand our understanding of our place in the world, the natural environment and history, and not simply distract us with more consumerism and isolating entertainment.

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