Although I first heard about it several years ago, only recently have I embraced the hobby/sport of geocaching. If you haven’t heard about geocaching, here it is in a nutshell: A worldwide treasure hunt, using GPS. This involves people hiding (and seeking) little boxes of stuff, all around you and logging the geographic coordinates on public websites. Where you live there are probably at least a half dozen geocaches within a 10 miles radius. Probably more. Geocachers even have a name for you, the non-geocacher — you are a “muggle.” It’s quite the hobbyist subculture… there’s something like 1+ million active geocachers out there. If you want to learn more, read the wikipedia entry, or go through geocaching.com. Geocaching.com is a site run by a company called Groundspeak, who (along with Garmin, makers of GPS navigation devices) are one of the dominant players in this field. Groundspeak has done a pretty good job monetizing this hobby in a number of innovative ways — but that’s for another conversation.
I think it’s remarkable how geocaching takes a techology like GPS and, instead of reducing the world to a series of coordinates, actually opens your eyes to the possibilities around us: all the nooks and crannies, all the tiny worlds within worlds, all the special places, all hidden or forgotten meanings.
Even before (but especially after) René Descartes laid his x-y grid over the land, the physical world has increasingly become indexed, subdued and commodified to what Heidegger called a ”standing reserve” of quantifiable resources awaiting exploitation. You’d think that this attitude (sometimes called “scientific materialism”) would only get worse with 24+ geosynchronous satellites orbitting the earth, which allow anyone holding a simple microwave signal receiver to pin-point their exact location (at present, to within 6 feet). GPS should be the ultimate de-materialization of the world, the ultimate reduction. And yet, it’s not.
Why not? Because we’re human. The medium is NOT the message, at least not this time (sorry, St. Marshall). Instead, the medium provides us a way to better spread the old message. In the case of geocaching, the old message was treasure hunting or letterboxing – two much older sports which are now getting a new, 21st century twist with geocaching. Now with geocaching, the treasure chests are everywhere around us, and the cleverly crafted clues, boxes and log books are proliferating… and even mutating into new specialized forms and sub-genres. Microcaches. Virtual Caches. Event Caches. Travel Bugs. Geocoins. Multi-Caches. Puzzle Caches. Webcam caches. The list keeps growing.
I see another example of this GPS-medium-not-being-the-message in (of all things!) the military. Now you’re asking yourself, “What’s that? Didn’t the military create the GPS, as a way to better subdue and dominate the landscape?” Yes that’s true, GPS is a tool that the military uses to reduce and quantify the earth (along with its contents and inhabitants) for utilitarian purposes. However, you may have also noticed in recent years that there is an increasing expectation of the military in terms of accuracy of weapons targetting during conflicts. Thanks to the availability of GPS, we Westerners expect that our military forces use the best and most expensive weapons and targeting available, to avoid civilian casualities. The old message is an ethical one: avoid civilian casualties. Instead of imposing its own (reductivist/utilitarian/technological) bias, the new medium of GPS augments the old (human/ethical) message.
Back to geocaching: I think that geocaching is the ultimate in augmented reality, since not only are you able to experience direct perception with a simulataneous layer of information and abstraction, but you can asynchronously connect and exchange that experience with other individuals. People often use geocaching to teach and share the significance of special places.
Today I found myself walking along a magnificent secluded beach, keeping one eye on my Garmin GPS receiver and the other eye on the rocks and tidepools in front of me. I couldn’t help but contemplate the countless, fractal micro-worlds within those tidepools, each one barely differentiated by the coarse-grained coordinate digits of my GPS receiver. Yet, by recording these coordinates and planting a geocache nearby, I would attract another person to this location, thus sharing something of this experience.
It doesn’t get any better than this…. but first, I will turn off my GPS receiver for a few minutes and just stand on this beach.