Geography and a Sense of Place

Stephen DeAngelis

November 21, 2012

I first wrote about the importance of geography back in 2009 in a post entitled The Importance of Geography. The focus of that post was a book entitled Europe Between the Oceans by Barry Cunliffe. In his book, Cunliffe insisted that geography still matters and, in fact, may have been the most important thing that mattered in the past. Benjamin Schwarz wrote a glowing review of Cunliffe’s book in The Atlantic [“Geography is Destiny,” December 2008]. In that review, Schwarz wrote:

“Geography forms the essential basis of Cunliffe’s history. The waters encircling Europe, the transpeninsular rivers that penetrated it, and its topography, currents, tides, and seasonal wind patterns all determined millennia-old sailing routes, and thus the goods and beliefs transported along them. From Cunliffe’s perspective, even the Roman Empire was just an interlude, and perhaps its main achievement was to institutionalize through its ports, roads, and market centers Europe-wide networks of exchange that had been operating since the Middle Stone Age.”

In a subsequent post on the importance of geography published earlier this year (The Importance of Geography and Place), I wrote:

“Both mariners and real estate agents have an appreciation and respect for geography, but for very different reasons. Let’s begin with the mariners’ perspective. Those who go to sea understand that the world remains a very big place and getting from here to there takes time (i.e., you can’t load goods on a ship in Amsterdam and deliver them to Shanghai the next day). … Real estate agents, on the other hand, aren’t so much concerned about distance as they are about location, location, location. Where specifically a home or business is located makes a huge difference in the value of a piece of property and the buildings that are on it. That’s why land in Manhattan is worth so much more than a land in Mesquite. Business leaders have to understand and embrace both perceptions of geography if they are to do well.”

In a special report on technology and geography, Patrick Lane agrees that “geography matters as much as ever, despite the digital revolution.” [“A Sense of Place,” The Economist, 27 October 2012] Lane insists that, even though geography still matters, some people don’t find that observation to be an obvious truth. The reason for that ambivalence is the internet and World Wide Web. He writes:

“In the couple of decades since the internet began to expand from academic to widespread public use, there have been three main ways of thinking about its relationship with the physical realm. The first, which reached its peak in the late 1990s, emphasized how the digital world would reshape the real one. People everywhere would have access to the same electronic libraries of information, news and comment. Many companies would be freer to choose their location, as better communications meant they would no longer need to be near their suppliers or customers. Setting up businesses would become easier, as would the outsourcing of services that could be supplied electronically. Staff could work just as well at home as in expensive and noisy offices, communicating with colleagues by e-mail or video link.”

Although many of the predictions about how connectivity would bring the world closer together and diminish the importance of geography came true, people have come to appreciate the fact that the world remains a big place. Lane explains:

“Reports of the ‘death of distance’ (the title of a 1995 special report in [The Economist]) have been much exaggerated. As this report will explain, many internet start-ups head for San Francisco, New York, Berlin, London or other hubs to be close to like-minded people. Talk of the ‘end of geography’ (another phrase from the mid-1990s) is about as convincing as the ‘end of history’ when the digital presence of different places varies so much. Forecasts of the ‘death of cities’ have turned out to be even wider of the mark: over the next two decades the United Nations expects the world’s urban population to grow by 195,000 a day.”

Lane goes on to note “that the physical realm also shapes the digital one.” Since so many people are now connected virtually around the clock wherever they go, Lane believes that “local information (where the nearest chemist is; whether there is a taxi nearby) is more valuable to people when they are on the move than when they are sitting at a desk.” As a result, he writes, “maps are an essential foundation” for any organization that wants “to provide local services over the internet.” He continues:

“In recent years there has been an explosion of investment in creating online representations of the real world: maps in two dimensions and in three, indoors as well as out, and in ever finer detail. It is possible, once your fingers get the hang of the controls, to ‘fly’ around New York, San Francisco and several other cities, noting the street names and the landmarks and stopping off to learn about places as you go. Giant technology companies—notably Google and Apple, which has just dropped its arch-rival’s maps from its mobile operating system—are locked in a struggle to create the best maps and embed the best information into them.”

If you don’t believe that maps matter, ask Scott Forstall, a senior software executive at Apple, who was let go “in the wake of the fiasco over its maps service.” [“Apple shake-up at top after maps fiasco,” by Richard Waters, Financial Times, 30 October 2012] Waters reports:

“The departure of Mr Forstall, who had been seen as one of the candidates to eventually succeed Mr Cook, follows the company’s most embarrassing product glitch in years. Mr Cook was forced to apologize for errors contained in the maps service which Mr Forstall’s group released as part of the September update to the iOS software used in iPhones, iPads and the iPod Touch. Apple refused to comment on whether Mr Forstall’s departure had been prompted by the problems with maps.”

The most ubiquitous personal device that connects virtual and real worlds for individuals is the smartphone. Lane reports, however, that “smartphones are only part of the story.” He explains:

“By 2020, reckons Cisco … 50 billion devices of various kinds will be connected. According to Wim Elfrink, Cisco’s head of globalization, at present only 0.2% of such devices are. The Earth is beginning to be electronically mapped in many dimensions. John Manley of HP Labs in Bristol envisages a ‘central nervous system for the Earth’, a planet-wide network of tiny, cheap, tough detectors that will see, hear, feel (by detecting vibrations), even smell and taste (by analyzing the chemistry of their surroundings), and report back.”

I suspect the Earth’s “central nervous system,” as described by Lane, won’t emerge in the near-term, but other networks (including machine-to-machine networks) are coming fast. In the future, even machines will likely have a sense of place. Lane continues:

“All this will be especially good for the growing numbers of city-dwellers. Even the devices in use today are already producing huge amounts of data. Most of these data are, and will continue to be, generated in cities, because that is where the phones, cars, buildings and infrastructure to which they relate are concentrated. If those data are combined and analyzed, they will make cities better places to live. Cities are already ‘smart’, in that people are more productive when they live in close proximity than far apart. Big data can make cities smarter still.”

The fact that so much data is (and will be) generated in cities is why I believe that targeted marketing will be so important to manufacturers and retailers in the decades ahead. Because of the massive amounts of data available, mini-demographics can be used to understand the sense of place neighborhood by neighborhood. In fact, maps are going inside stores and getting super-local. In one of the articles in The Economist‘s special report [“The world in your pocket,” 27 October 2012], it was noted:

“Late last year both Google and Nokia said they would be helping people find their way around places like shopping malls and airports. Nokia has indoor maps of 5,100 venues in 40 countries. One of Google’s first projects was to cover Tokyo’s metro, which to strangers can be a bewildering warren, and the city’s two airports. Google says that more than 10,000 floor plans are available to users of its Android mobile operating system. IMS Research, a consultancy, forecasts that by 2016 almost 120,000 maps of indoor venues will be available to consumers.”

The bottom line is: geography, location, and a sense of place in the physical world are going to matter regardless of how technologically advanced the world becomes. Lane concludes: “The digital and the physical world are interacting ever more closely. The rapidly declining cost of communications and computing power has already wrought huge changes in the way people go about their daily lives. Digital maps and guides will affect the way people behave in the physical world and bring about yet more changes. The digital and the physical are becoming one.”