Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The cellphone, navigating our lives

John Markoff offers a terrific intro in yesterday's New York Times ("The cellphone, navigating our lives"): "The cellphone is the world’s most ubiquitous computer. The four billion cellphones in use around the globe carry personal information, provide access to the Web and are being used more and more to navigate the real world. And as cellphones change how we live, computer scientists say, they are also changing how we think about information."

In his piece, Markoff proposes that the metaphor of the map is replacing the metaphor of the office file as a means to understanding our relationship to information. To illustrate, the author discusses Google's new Latitude location-orientation application. With this app, the information aggregator will be able to sift through more and more content with each use of a mobile phone to relate ourselves to places in the world.

Moreover, according to Markoff, "a new generation of smartphones like the G1, with Android software developed by Google, and a range of Japanese phones now “augment” reality by painting a map over a phone-screen image of the user’s surroundings produced by the phone’s camera." Markoff cites M:Metrics research to state that only ten percent U.S. mobile phone users use the map features on their phones. But that number is growing.

I find this particularly interesting given the relationship of our uses of technology to the development of our brains. While a cause-effect question remains, I am intrigued by Markoff's proposal that our turning over to machines the mapping that we typically do in our brains (as we have abandoned so many of our other memory functions) may produce profound effects. A snip:

“I have wondered about the fact that we might as a culture lose the skill of mapping our environment, relying on the Web to tell us how to navigate,” said Hugo Spiers, a neurobiologist at University College London. “Thus, it might reduce the growth of cells in the hippocampus, which we think stores our internal maps.”

Read the entire article: The cellphone, navigating our lives

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