The tracks of your tears

Dig this: Some artists in Amsterdam have created the Realtime Project, where they track the movements of participants all day long, via GPS. They hand out tracking devices to anyone who wants to be part of the group — and then plot out their movements on maps.

The end result? These incredibly spooky traces of a human life, as it goes about its business in the city. There’s a cyclist, who ranges all over the place; a marathon runner, who goes from one end of the metropolis to the other; and a tram driver.

They’re oddly beautiful. They almost look like neural pathways through the brain — humans as the electrons flowing through the city-computer.

But these maps are also quite politically revealing — because this, dear reader, is your future in about five years. As we speak, mobile companies are working frantically to roll out technologies that will let them pinpoint the location of phone handsets down to a few meters. It’s called “location-based services,” and the goal is, in part, to offer you some fun toys — like the ability to pull out your phone and have it tell you where the nearest ATM or Italian restaurant is. But it’s also far more sinister, since the phone companies will be able to report your position to anyone who pays for the info, too.

So try this on for size: Imagine what it’s like when your boss knows where you are, all day long. Hell, you don’t even have to imagine it. Over in Hong Kong, the Pinpoint Company has released Workplace — a tool that tracks the location of workers’ mobile phones all day long. Employers will be looking at maps not much different from the Amsterdam project: Your pathways, for all to see.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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