Tech March 2013

Look Smarter

Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake talks with Alexis Madrigal about how new location-based tools will help us to see our surroundings with fresh eyes.
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Thomas Porostocky

There is a world of information on the Internet. There is a world of information in people’s brains. And then there is the world around us. These three realms are merging in new and weird ways: in the time it takes to read a menu in a restaurant window, we can look up 67 reviews of that restaurant; while we’re waiting to order dinner, we can look at satellite photographs of the block via Google Earth. And yet vast quantities of local wisdom, lore, and data remain difficult to access. That’s about to change. Caterina Fake is a co-founder of the Yahoo-owned photo-sharing site Flickr and a co-founder of Hunch, which used machine learning to predict what consumers might like. Her new start-up, Findery, is designed to help users share stories about their surroundings.

Alexis Madrigal: You’ve been working at consumer-oriented Internet companies for more than a decade. How has the Internet changed in that time?

Caterina Fake: We’ve gone through this really expansive phase, and we are in a state of reunification and refocus on the local. I don’t know how long you would say the expansive period lasted, maybe 10 years. It was a period of all-embracing, global vision. When we were making Flickr, we called it the “Eyes of the World.” The idea was that everybody, everywhere, is looking. It was this sense of being able to penetrate worlds that you had never been able to access before—of global, universal travel. It was really big and really amazing and mind-blowing and mind-boggling, and it’s the reason that I was into the Internet to begin with.

When I first got online, it was in the ’80s, and I was on all these bulletin-board services. I was really into [Jorge Luis] Borges, and I found this whole group of Borges scholars in Denmark. Here I am, I’m a teenager, I’m living in suburban New Jersey, and I don’t have anybody to talk to, but I meet all these people online, and I learn all about Borges. When you’re remote like that, the Internet can give a sense of connection to people.

So we built a lot of tools to make it easier and easier for everybody to get online and do the same thing. I think we’ve reached capacity in that sense—in the sense of the globalization of the individual mind.

AM: And now things are changing. Are we entering a new phase?

CF: I think we are gaining a new appreciation for the here and now, for the place we live, for the people in our neighborhood, for groundedness. This may be something that comes from social-media exhaustion. You see the early indications of a return to the local.

The computers people have are no longer on their desks, but in their hands, and that is probably the transformative feature of the technology. These computers are with you, in the world. So your location is known. It used to be that you would search for a florist in Bellingham, Washington, and get the most popular florist in the world. But now the computer knows where you are; it even knows what block you’re on.

AM: How will this change what people actually read and watch and listen to? And how will Findery work?

CF: Findery lets you tease out local knowledge, hidden secrets, stories and information about the world around you. People can annotate places in the real world, leave notes tagged to a specific geographic location—an address, a street corner, a stream, a park bench, the rock at the end of the road. Then, other people find those notes.

To give you some examples, I’ve lived for years in my house in San Francisco but had no idea, till Findery, that Anne Rice wrote Interview With the Vampire down the street, and that Courtney Love lived on the block when she was dating Kurt Cobain. The Safeway near my house turns out to almost have been a funeral home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and there’s a famous artist working out of an abandoned building nearby. I’ve learned the names of plants I’d never noticed before. Someone has grafted branches from fruit trees onto the trees in the park near my office, and you can forage fruit from them. You shouldn’t cross the street on the south side of Gough but on the north side, which will save you time, the way the traffic lights are timed.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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