Chapter 1. Lost and Found


Chapter 1. Lost and Found

At the seashore, between the land of atoms
and the sea of bits, we are now facing the
challenge of reconciling our dual citizenship
in the physical and digital worlds
.

Hiroshi Ishii

MIT Media Lab

I'm sitting on a beach in Newport, Rhode Island. Seagulls and sandpipers hunt near the water's edge. The Atlantic ocean sparkles in the early morning sun. To my right, the Cliff Walk winds its way between the rugged New England shoreline and the manicured gardens of the Newport mansions, opulent "summer cottages" built with industrial age fortunes made in steamships, railroads, and foreign trade.

I'm sitting on a beach in Newport, but I'm not entirely there. My attention is focused on a device that rests in the palm of my hand. It's a Treo 600 smartphone. I'm using it to write this sentence, right here, right now. As a 6.2 ounce computer sporting a 144 megahertz RISC processor, 32 megabytes of RAM, a color display, and a full QWERTY keyboard, this is one impressive micro-machine. But that's not what floats my boat. What I love about this device is its ability to reach out beyond the here and now.

By integrating a mobile phone and Palm Powered organizer with wireless email, text messaging, and web browsing, the Treo connects me with global communication and information networks. I can make a phone call, send email, check the weather, buy a book, learn about Newport, and find a restaurant for lunch. The whole world is accessible and addressable through this 21st Century looking glass in the palm of my hands.

But make no mistake, this device is a two-way mirror. Not only can people reach out and touch me with a phone call, an email, or a text message. Equipped with the right technology, someone could pinpoint my location within a few hundred feet. Like most new smartphones, my Treo includes an embedded Global Positioning System chip designed to support E911 emergency location services. In other words, I'm findable.

Here's where things get interesting. We're at an inflection point in the evolution of findability. We're creating all sorts of new interfaces and devices to access information, and we're simultaneously importing tremendous volumes of information about people, places, products, and possessions into our ubiquitous digital networks.

Consider the following examples:

  • There's a company called Ambient Devices that embeds information representation into everyday objects: lights, pens, watches, walls, and wearables. You can buy a wireless Ambient Orb that shifts colors to show changes in the weather, stock market, and traffic patterns based on user preferences you set on a web site.

  • From the highways of Seattle and Los Angeles to the city streets of Tokyo and Berlin, embedded wireless sensors and real-time data services for mobile devices are enabling motorists to learn about and route around traffic jams and accidents.

  • Pioneers in "convergent architecture" have built the Swisshouse, a new type of consulate in Cambridge, Massachussetts that connects a geographically dispersed scientific community. It may not be long before persistent audio-video linkages and "web on the wall" come to a building near you.

  • Delicious Library's social software turns an iMac and FireWire digital video camera into a multimedia cataloging system. Simply scan the barcode on any book, movie, music, or video game, and the item's cover appears on your digital shelves along with tons of information from the Web. This sexy, location-aware, peer-to-peer, personal lending library lets you share your collection with friends and neighbors.

  • You can buy a watch from Wherify Wireless with an integrated global positioning system (GPS) that locks onto your kid's wrist, so you can pinpoint his location at any time. A nifty "breadcrumb" feature shows where your child has wandered over the course of several hours. Similar devices are available in amusement parks such as Denmark's Legoland, so parents can quickly find their lost children.

  • Manufacturers such as Procter & Gamble have already begun inserting radio-frequency identification tags (RFIDs) into products so they can reduce theft and restock shelves more efficiently. These tags continue to function long after products leave the store and enter the home or business.

  • At the Baja Beach Club in Barcelona, patrons can buy drinks and open doors with a wave of their hand, compliments of a syringe-injected, RFID microchip implant. The system knows who you are, where you are, and your exact credit balance. Getting "chipped" is considered a luxury service, available for VIP members only.

The size and price of processors, sensors, radio frequency identification tags, and related technologies are approaching a tipping point. Today's expensive prototypes are tomorrow's dirt cheap products. Imagine the ability to track the location of anyone or anything from anywhere at anytime. Simply affix a tiny sticker to your TV's remote control or to the bottom of your spouse's shoe, and then fire up your Treo's web browser.

We're stepping through the looking glass into an information-rich world with new possibilities and problems. We will find delight in groovy gadgets and location-based services. Individuals and institutions will achieve greater flexibility and productivity. And yet, we will struggle to balance privacy, freedom, convenience, and safety.

And amidst all this novelty, our vaunted ability to "learn how to learn" will be put to the test. How will we make informed decisions? How will we know enough to ask the right questions? Nine billion web pages. Six billion people. Who do you ask? Who do you trust? How do you find the best product, the right person, the data that makes a difference?

The answers are hidden in the strange connections between wayfinding, social software, information retrieval, decision trees, self-organization, evolutionary psychology, librarianship, and authority. As William Gibson, the science-fiction author who coined the term cyberspace, once noted, "The future exists today. It's just unevenly distributed."

Where the Internet meets ubiquitous computing, the histories of navigation, communication, commerce, and information seeking converge. We increasingly use mobile devices to find our way, to find products, to find answers, and to find ourselves. As we map the emerging shoreline that connects the land of atoms and the sea of bits, findability serves as a useful lens for seeing where we've been and what lies ahead.