Google Now recently gained the ability to search your email for hotel reservations and automatically suggest restaurants near where you are staying. Microsoft’s Cortana has integrated with Foursquare to do something similar. Both hold the promise of greater convenience enabled by digital technology. Indeed, I’m sure it won’t be long before both are capable of learning you prefer Italian food while traveling, booking you a table, hailing you a taxi and pinging you as your ride arrives outside the hotel.
Not a moment will be wasted: maximum productivity, minimum inconvenience. However, what might you miss while wrapped in this digital cocoon?
The random conversation in the hotel lobby which leads to dining with some locals?
The unlikely ‘hole-in-the-wall’ kitchen wafting aromas of street food to tempt you to try something new?
There’s a world of experiences unsuited to appearing on the radar of digital convenience. It is a world which is physically close, yet digitally unseen and often holds the most memorable moments.
It leaves me wondering whether the scale and efficiencies of digital will ever be suited to gathering, understanding and structuring knowledge of these currently digitally invisible places. Indeed, it also raises the question of whether adding them to the digital world would change them in such a way that they would lose their appeal, either because you could no longer claim to have discovered them for yourself or because the interest they’d generate would overwhelm the characteristics of small scale, personal service which make them special?
For instance, I can tell you where to buy the best shellfish in my local area, but it doesn’t appear on any map and is unlisted in any Foursquare or Yelp. If you wanted to discover it for yourself, you’d have to place sufficient trust in the word of a local or take a chance on a hand-painted sign pointing to a fridge in the shed at the back of someone’s garden. The owners have as much business as they want. They wouldn’t be able to do what they do if they had great crowds of people arriving everyday on the strength of a Google Now or Cortana recommendation.
Should some start-up be cooking up a clever way to surface these kind of places on our digital screens or should we accept there is a value in keeping some parts of the world digitally unseen so that we may observe them more fully with our own eyes?