Someone—I do not know who—had used Gowalla to tag this little island in the middle of the lake as a point of interest, and so the island became interesting to me. The chance meeting with this island, which existed to me only as a data point, has remained in my mind for years. What did the existence of the island, not as a physical place in the middle of a lake in Northern Sweden, but as a digital place discovered on my phone, really mean?
From the road, places like the little island in the middle of the lake were invisible and undiscoverable. The countryside could seem mostly empty for outsiders and people, like us, passing through. Yet, they are storied landscapes, inhabited for centuries by people with shifting and sometimes competing ways of using the land. There are traces everywhere. Signs by the road alert drivers to officially designated points of interest such as national parks, war memorials, the massive World Heritage Site Laponia. Travelers interested in what historian of technology David Nye calls the technological sublime can observe giant mines, hydropower plants, and the occasional wind turbine—all signs of significant human interventions in the landscape. Rickety moose-hunting towers, animal crossing signs, and black plastic sacks tied to sticks along the road—to indicate the presence of herded reindeer—hint at humans and animals co-existing and interacting, no matter how empty the road may seem at times. Look closely enough, and the land is suddenly very crowded with layers upon layers of history.
Visitors and travelers have been able to learn about these and other points of interest through maps and travel guides for a long time. Throughout the 19th century, urban travelers turned the Scandinavian countryside into a tourist destination by exploring, mapping, and writing extensively about what they considered areas worth seeing. Published since 1886, the Swedish Tourist Association’s annual book demonstrates how its authors directed visitors to particular places and vistas. For instance, the first volume provided directions to the most accessible glaciers in Lapland. Descending from the Walli mountain toward the Njåtso valley, the book advised, would give you the most spectacular views of massive glaciers.
More modern travel guides like Lonely Planet and Rough Guides belong in this tradition, but have recently come under strong pressure from digital media. Geosocial networking apps are, in other words, only the latest in a long history of making places shareable and findable through media. They should, however, be considered platforms rather than stand-alone products, dependent on crowdsourced information for all but the most iconic points of interest. The GPS-enabled smartphone gives us a dynamic window into this world. While certainly not the only possible view of space and its meanings, Gowalla and other geosocial networking apps opened up the landscape and covered it in data generated by people who had passed by, lived here, experienced these places, and then chosen to share them.