For the past ten years, there have been many attempts to embed information in the physical architecture of cities. This new media trend is part of a whole phenomenon conceptualized by media scholars as “net locality”; the concept is illustrated by the idea of a small town, once physical isolated from the rest of the world, becomes potentially cosmopolitan because of the information embedded into its streets.
Net locality projects have different goals; nevertheless, many of them share the common objective of augmenting the knowledge of passersby about their surroundings or about a specific location through a set of technologies: GPS-enabled phones, Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), Near Field Communication (NFC) and so on.
One technology that has been used to physically attach information to physical places is QRcodes. Some examples are in New York City, at the Central Park or at the buildings with city permits, an initiative approved by the City Council. The latter has been heavily criticized; while some people present the project as an innovative method to inform citizens and promote government transparency, others argue that the QRcodes will not be set in the best place and will be hard to costumers to scan them. As I wrote in a previous blog post, the issue of making the QRcodes visible and easy to scan is a concern also of Monmouthpedia.
What is interesting to highlight about these projects is the implied discourse of innovation that is practiced in the field of locative media, either by researchers, popular press or innovators. In other words, being a pioneer seems to be the most important thing of the deployment of a technology. Concerns with adoption seem to be taken for granted. For instance, when I look at the discourse of some people presenting the creative implementation of QRcodes, I see that a sort of flag of “ the first one” being waived: the world’s first location-based Wikipedia city; the first QRcode in the world to be printed out on the ground Portuguese pavement; the first government agency in the United States to deploy QRcodes in the US.
While this flag is waived, much criticism is left behind. Thus, net locality projects are launched with great expectations. They would foster serendipity, increasing people’s sense of their surroundings; provide access for digital heritage, participation and citizen engagement and increase tourism.
However, despite the significance of these projects we have noticed a lack of conceptualization and a critical theoretical guidance of what is location-based information applied to physical places in urban places. Are people interested in reading long articles while on the go? If these projects are designed for tourists, is there free Wi-Fi network available? The latter is critical to a project like that to be successful. After all, 3G/4G roaming service for tourists abroad is still very expensive to afford. In this sense, if these QRcodes implementation in cities aim at reaching tourists and the city does not provide free Wi-Fi access they are missing the point.
The final questions I raise about these projects are: what is the best physical place to attach information? Which content should be tagged to places? What is the role of context and local knowledge when information is attached to places? What happens when passersby have access to information on a façade of a building?