Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Sensory Overload: Or, How to Get a Geek to Run

By Evan D. Robertson, Project Associate. 

It’s 8:07. I am standing on a cold, dark street with a street lamp flickering on and off at irregular intervals. The pavement beneath is soaking wet from a thunderstorm that just passed, another is on its way. On my way home I checked Doppler radar on an app and realized that I could fit in a twenty minute run before the next thunderstorm hit. Normally, I wouldn’t be so daring, however, my watch tells me that I am 1.83 miles behind my goal of 30 in four weeks. Having never run 30 miles in the 27 years I’ve been alive, this causes me undue anxiety. After stretching for five minutes, I hold a button on my watch. The display flashes with a satellite symbol, letting me know that it is trying to connect to one of twenty-four orbiting the earth at precise locations. Once it connects, the satellite transmits the time held on its internal clock to my watch which then compares the satellite’s time with the time it holds. With the difference calculated, my watch knows exactly where I am located on the earth. Time to begin my run. 

After I get home, I download the Global Positioning System (GPS) data from my watch. The data is automatically uploaded to a website that tracks my distance; shows how long it took me to run the first mile, the second, and so forth; plots my path on Google Maps as well as flags the location of my fastest and slowest paces. I sit absolutely amazed. If the information technology revolution of the 1990s was about transforming communication between people, transmitting and storing vast amounts of data, and making calculations at near the speed of light then the IT revolution of the 2010s variety is about ubiquitous, singularly-omniscient sensors taking readings of the surrounding environment and our interactions with it. It is what Waldrop and Lippel call the sensor revolution. A revolution entailing tiny GPS units tracking your whereabouts (for your use only, of course…), gyroscopes and accelerometers checking the subtle way you tilt your phone so as to make sure your app stays on track, sensors detecting minute details of your driving habits and taking over when necessary and it’s perhaps a revolution where things go a little too far. 

The sensor revolution is extending its reach to our urban environments. Traffic signals are being upgraded to give a green light to emergency vehicles, trucks, and buses. Sensors are also being used to track the more mundane aspects of urban life. A project out of MIT’s SENSEable City Lab used location aware sensors to track trash, giving researchers greater insight into a city's waste management system. Indeed, these tiny objects will have profound ramifications for how we interact with our urban environments, how we live our daily lives. 

The question remains whether the current iteration of the IT revolution will be able to positively impact the lives of those less fortunate or whether it will simply create another digital divide, further segregating technology from those could benefit from it the most. Being able to track your habits can have a transformative effect on habits themselves. But, the resources required to track them (the watch, the computer, the internet connection) places the technology out of reach to many. And it is still unclear how sensors will integrate the qualitative, compassionate aspects of human life so necessary to creating a viable livable space where everyone can flourish.