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:
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.