Geotagging and the Curation of the World

Emmanuel Episcopal Church

Stained glass window at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Bristol, TN. The window depicts the four apostles (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) and there is a wood carving of Jesus and Mary in between the windows. 

Since I’m not a regular Flickr user, I’m not accustomed to the geotagging feature.  After watching the TED Talk and reading about EXIF data, I got the strange sense that the ‘future is now’.  It is mind-boggling to think about the ways in which the average person with some Internet access and a modicum of technology skills can curate the physical and social world.  It’s not hard to see the positive consequences of this; the flattening of information hierarchies (i.e. there are less gatekeepers of information) and the flattening of the world itself (e.g. I can now explore nooks and crannies of places I might never visit or things I might miss).  Like Wes pointed out in his blog post, this also something eerily Orwellian about a future where every picture has metadata that reveals the precise location.  We can make ourselves prone to surveillance and disclose information that we would rather keep private.

One of my favorite classes in college was art history.  Art became ‘real’ for me since I had two good professors in art history who curated the canon of Western art, giving the rich social, cultural, and intellectual context of the paintings.  I was able to see works of art as a reflection of the zeitgeist of an era and having loved social studies since childhood, it was fascinating to look at works in their time and place.  The EXIF data on images can now curate the time and place of simple images we take with smartphones.  This is helpful in the way that it takes the guesswork in knowing where and when an image was taken place  Like Aguera y Arcas stated in the TED Talk video, the sum is greater than the parts.  That is the hope of social media – that we can collectively create a world that is far richer than anything that any one of us can experience or document. EXIF cannot tell us, however, why a particular photo is important to a person (i.e. the subjective value) or what is the historical/social context of a type of photo (ex. selfies) which we ourselves cannot always articulate.  For example, why did someone share an random image of a empty urban lot?  Perhaps they went on their first date there at a restaurant there and since then, the restaurant was closed and torn down.  I’m sure in 50 years people will scratch their heads if they uncover ‘seflies’; without understanding the trend and fun attaching to taking part in a social trend, selfies wouldn’t make much sense.  Neither do Cubist paintings make much sense to someone who doesn’t understand how Cubism developed and how it reflected the increasingly rational, urban Western world of the early 20th century.  I can imagine a scenario where the web is filled with ‘image dumps’ (such as Flickr and Photo bucket) that, in spite of having EXIF data, don’t really give us much context.  Like a lot of ‘primary sources’, we are left scratching our heads.  Unless computers can read our minds in the future, which brings me to my next point…………

A Picasso paiting – an artist most closely associated with Cubism. Very esoteric (i.e. it makes you ask wtf?) if you’ve never taken art history!!!

It’s also scary and disheartening to think of a world where there is nothing left to discover and no way to slip off the grid.  It’s one thing to make yourself visible to the world and quite another to be the unwilling object of surveillance.  Yet it happens all the time. I like the idea of using this data but I think we would be wise to educate ourselves and others about potential risks of sharing photos online.  [Insert spiel about media literacy here].

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