Location, location, location (and timing)

A few weeks back I attended a symposium (The Focus on Locus) at the Columbia Business school on the coming tusnami of location based services. For some reason I mistakenly believed the day might include discussions and demonstrations of visualizations and mapping UIs, but it was actually more about the other end of the equation – how every device on the planet will soon be aware of its own location, and the sorts of privacy, policy, and commercial implications of this emerging reality.

Henning Schulzrinne, the chair of the CS dept kicked of the day from 1000m up by pointing out that, nowadays,  just about every device on the planet knows what time it is (non-trivial when you consider the standards, protocols, and apis that needed to be resolved for this to happen so smoothly everywhere), and reminded us that less than 10 years ago you still needed to set the time on your cell phone. Knowing the time has become completely transparent on many electronic and networked devices, and has become part of the fabric of the digital age. We search for emails, pictures, documents and more based on timestamps – they are so common it is even hard to imagine computing without them.

Extrapolate a few years out, and the dimensional quartet of space-time will be reunited once more. Everything will know where it is, and not just geo coordinates – devices will know the street block they are on, the room they occupy in relation to floor plans, etc etc. Henning is even working on the standards and protocols to facilitate this ubiquity. Once you say this out load it becomes obvious – many of the systems that we use to figure out where we are rely on knowing when you are to do so. This dates back to the solution to the Royal Academy’s Longitude X-Prize, all the way up to the triangulation used by modern GPS.

Location based services have also finally creeped out the 99% of the people who don’t seem to grok the privacy issues posed by the tracks our digital footprints leave behind. Perhaps its more visceral, immediate, and concrete, but people are buggin. In a very surreal moment, I realized that many of the privacy concerns raised at the Columbia Business School symposium were very similar to the privacy conversations happening at the hacker conference (the Last HOPE) I attended the week afterwards. (yeah yeah – the groups are both stereotypically libertarian, but would you have predicted the similarity?)

Refreshingly, some of the models and thought experiments I have been developing in relation to my End of Forgetting work held up really well throughout both conferences. The information flux model remains relatively unique, and continues to suggest alternate ways of retying the gordian knot of that is strapping us to the petabyte age.

It’s always fun attending a meeting like this and trying to maintian a critical perspective – paying attention to the omissions, the assumptions, and even the construction of the instruments (like the standards which might be used to indicate the privacy levels of data). Speak now or forever hold your place.

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