In ‘Where Were We: Communities for Sharing Space-Time Trails’ Counts and Smith (2007) discuss GPS trails as a ‘document type of growing importance’. The step it takes to think of a personal GPS trail as a document type is interesting. As artists we have been arguing for the value of GPS trails in themselves rather than as anchors for other media, and as storytelling devices, aid memoires, expressive individual lines, viewing them as an essentially qualitative form of data, or at least a tool in the gathering of qualitative data that is closely related to space and place. A ‘document type’ is uniform, official, exchangeable, re-usable, but most of all reminiscent of offices and standardized processes, and in this context is used to describe trails that can be analysed for pattern as a quantative form of data in conjunction with millions of other routes, and that recurrent forms of behaviour can be observed. A qualitative use of GPS trails allows users ownership over the interpretation of their own trail, and it is that personal interpretation that is the qualitative data. The trail as document type, as quantative data, gives the power of interpretation to an algorithm, over which the person creating the data has very little control.
In their discussion of these trails Counts and Smith discuss social ties, referring to Goffman’s work on face-to-face interaction and the public performance of social actions, and suggest that trails will give us the capacity to mediate those actions digitally. “The interaction order is changing as mobile devices sense more of the social world and integrate with existing social networking systems so that computation is extended into site of face-to-face interaction, the “synapse of society”, the gap between people when they associate.”, this idea that computation is becoming ubiquitous in both online and physical activities echoes Nigel Thrifts concept ‘qualculation’.
Counts and Smith say that “Routes are becoming an increasingly common document type that is likely to be authored by billions of people every day as they go about their daily lives while carrying sophisticated sensor rich mobile devices.” These trails that are ‘authored’ perhaps make Ingold’s notion of wayfinding into an authoring process that is at odds with the idea of ‘journeying along a way of life’. As I’ve previously suggested in observations about our work ‘Running Stitch’ (in my paper at ISEA 2009), the use of a GPS may turn a journey into a performance of space, one that is being perceived by the walker/runner/cyclist/driver both on the ground and in the plan view, and is thought of as something that has an audience outside the event, in a different place and a later time. However when the author of the trail then gives up the representation and interpretation of that trail to another system or website, their own authorship lies solely in the route they take. The trail starts to loose much of its qualitative nature, and instead of becoming a map that entangles the map with the trail on the ground, the experience on the ground is reduced to become an extraction that can be mapped.
In concluding Counts and Smith remark that “These machine annotated route documents will then be open to human annotation and will become a new source of social record keeping and signaling”. What is striking to me however is that this social element, this annotation happens after the fact, the trail may be gathered as it happens, with its local conditions, but the act of annotation (I assume) happens later on a website, not from the located mobile device. This social record keeping is not about the sociality of space, or even an idea of place negotiated IN the place, but reflected on later, on the plan view.