“Where are you?”

by Yule Heibel on July 29, 2007

I just came across an article by Kate Greene in the MIT Technology Review, Marking Your Territory, about web-based services that let you keep your friends up-to-date on where you currently are. In particular, the article describes Plazes, a Swiss start-up, which Greene says “lets you leave electronic bread crumbs for friends.” It sounds interesting.

As it happens, I went to the Inner Harbour today to see a display of over 750 Deuce Coupes, part of Northwest Deuce Day, and noticed that many people were on cell phones telling other people where they were.

At one point, I passed one woman walking south on Government Street in front of the Empress, telling someone that she was half-way past the lawn and nearly at the Royal BC Museum, while another woman passed by heading north, telling whoever was on the line that she was heading toward the Information Booth. Both women were literally less than a foot apart, and both were saying essentially the same thing to people they were speaking to on the phone.

Greene quotes a researcher at Yahoo:

“There is a sense that it’s important to find friends and share location with each other,” says Mor Naaman, a research scientist at Yahoo. Indeed, an increasingly common opening question in cell-phone conversations is “Where are you?”

“Where are you?”

“I’m here.”

…You’re sure about that, are you?

I tried this idea out on my offspring, as the women walked past us. I said, “It’s funny, it’s as though the technology is putting us back into place or something.” They looked at me funny. “?” “Well,” I stumbled, “it’s as though all this digital stuff allowed us to have ultra-mobility, but now it’s also tethering us again, sort of like a Post-It or something, sticking us into place. You’re on your phone telling people where you are. You’re stuck.”

They thought this was excessively cerebral and told me so. We continued to look at cars, marvelling at their faces. You could take off in a car like that, and not tell anyone where you are or where you’re going…

PS/Update: It occurs to me that an affair with urban policy‘s recent entry on Bruce Katz’s Washington Post editorial, A Much More Urban America, is apropos here (the link here goes directly to the Brookings Institute source). The blog quotes from Katz’s text:

Thirty years ago, some futurists predicted that the restructuring of the American economy and our technological advances would free and un-anchor us from place, precipitating a mass de-urbanization throughout the nation.

Well, they were wrong. Far from being dead, cities are experiencing a second life, fueled, in part, by their distinctive physical assets: mixed-use downtowns, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods, adjoining rivers and lakes, historic buildings and distinctive architecture.

And one person comments on the blog, thus:

“technological advances would free and un-anchor us from place”

Sounds great! I want to be un-anchored from my suburban office job such that I can live in Minneapolis and telecommute.

That speaks to the topic I started with, somehow. Technology is — and isn’t — “un-anchoring” us from place. In a way, it’s placing us very tightly, if somehow differently.

Well, I’m placing myself in sleep mode (I hope). Recently, I had my eyes checked and as the ophthamologist used some sort of gadget to look into my eyeballs, he remarked, “You haven’t been getting much sleep, have you?” Some places are more bloodshot than they should be, I guess!


Pavithra Srinivasan July 31, 2007 at 12:40 am


I’m part of the editorial team at a career magazine in India, called Global Careers. I’m researching for an article on HeyMath!, the online tutoring website – which led me here. I’m kind of looking for some constructive criticism on the site, and since I couldn’t find your email address, thought of writing to you here. Would you please give me your comments about HeyMath!, and allow me to quote you in the article? I’d really appreciate it. Thanks!

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