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.

By Alexis C. Madrigal

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.

People do lovely things on Findery, like leave drawings of a place in that place, and write poems about places and leave them there. People make little scavenger hunts and leave private notes for each other.

AM: You are a longtime Internet person. Why do you care so much about sense of place?

CF: My background is in art. I was a painter and an occasional sculptor, and I really like materials—you know, stuff. Physical objects. The world and the trees and the sunshine and the flowers. And all of that doesn’t seem to really exist out in the ether of the Internet. Bringing people back into that actual, feel-able world is very important. My life project is humanizing technology: making technology more real and bringing it back into human interactions.

“I had no idea that Anne Rice wrote Interview With the Vampire down the street from me, and that Courtney Love lived on the block when she was dating Kurt Cobain.”

AM: What do you want Findery to feel like? How are we going to see this kind of content layered onto the planet?

CF: It will be like a magic book, like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, when it is fully built out. It’s this sort of magical little board that you flip open and everything around you is revealed.

AM: An adventure machine.

CF: An adventure machine! Information and queries start coming up around you.

AM: Do you think we might see these things pop up on a hands-free, head-mounted augmented-reality display, like Google’s Project Glass?

CF: I actually find that heads-up displays in cars and on Google Glass remove you from the presence of the people around you. But in the end, I’m not really a hardware person. I’m ecumenical about delivery systems—I’m more focused on the what than the how.

AM: Could more knowledge lead people to shun dangerous or crime-ridden areas?

CF: There was a lot of crime information on Findery for Hunters Point, a poor neighborhood in San Francisco. As a team, we felt an urge to make the place come alive, to say, “This is the community, this is the history of the place, here’s the important stuff that’s going on now.” That can’t happen unless you give people a place to talk. If a newspaper reports on Hunters Point, the “if it bleeds it leads” attitude dominates. The news doesn’t tell you the story of a place as the locals know it.

AM: Are there any other downsides to consuming all this local knowledge?

CF: If you have a beginner’s mind when you arrive in a new place, it can be very wonderful. I went to Rome for the first time in 2006, and I honestly didn’t know how wonderful it would be. I thought, Oh, it’s a city of ruins. Not much more than that. When I got there, my mind was blown. I had never seen a place so dense with amazing things. So there’s something to showing up somewhere without any local knowledge.

AM: It seems like every distribution medium ends up coalescing around certain forms, specific ways of writing. Newspapers have the 600-word story. Magazines gave us longer profiles. What will be Findery’s defining form?

CF: The form Findery is zeroing in on is shorter than a blog post, longer than a tweet. It’s pithy—a paragraph, maybe two. Because you’re mobile, you’re not going to read a novel; you want the précis, the distillation, the thing that you need to know. And then, if you want to dig deeper, you dig deeper.

This is the latest installment in a series of conversations about the future, moderated in alternate issues by James Fallows and Alexis Madrigal. For an extended transcript of this and other conversations, visit theatlantic.com/thefuture.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/03/look-smarter/309234/