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Where are you (in the digital world)?

Published on 12 June 2016
Updated on 19 March 2024

This question popped into my head during one of my Geneva walks. That day, on my daily attempt to pass 12,000 steps, I came across a poster that made me curios to visit an exhibition T’es où?  (in English Where are you?) at the Geneva Science Museum. The exhibition is dedicated to our dependence on space. ‘Where we are’ has been essential for our survival and our overall well-being throughout history.

Where are you (in the digital world)?How does it matter today? Where are you in digital space?

Your geographical location can be easily traced once you are connected to the Internet. For a long time, we have been told that the Internet marks the end of geography and distance. But, the reality reveals the opposite. The more we are digitally connected, the more we are anchored in geography. Our digital devices make our moves traceable almost anywhere.

This very need for spatial orientation has become part of the Internet business model. The Internet helps us know ‘where we are’ in exchange for the monetarisation of these conveniences. If companies know where we are, they can customise their offer of restaurants, shops and cinemas. Uber finds innovative ways to move us around. Airbnb offers us accommodation in the new places we want to discover.

In a matter of years, almost everything that moves will be digitised, be it our cars, our bikes or our bodies, by using mobile phones or wearing digitised garments. This era of the Internet of Things will trigger new policy and ethical questions.

The first step in answering these complex questions should be to avoid a naïve view of the end of geography. Geography matters more than ever. This message is seen daily with the thousands of migrants risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean. Yes, they have mobile phones. They are part of virtual space. But, they search for better and safer lives in the ‘real space’ in the territories of Germany, Sweden and other developed countries. Virtual space remains ‘virtual’ for our basic needs.

Any future discussion on ‘virtuality’ and territoriality brings us to the question of the role of states. Territory is at the basis of statehood. In the very definition of states is sovereign control of territory (1933 Montevideo Convention). The world’s surface is divided into territories under state sovereignty, with the exception of the Arctic, the Antarctic and the open sea.

Will a return to geography through the Internet’s geo-location tools reinforce or diminish the role of states? Will the Internet re-define this ‘territorial’ aspect of humanity? Will Internet businesses take the role of states in managing our interaction with our physical spaces?

Please let me know if you would like to learn more about my research on virtuality and territoriality (jovank@diplomacy.edu or @jovankurbalija).

Geneva Walks is my walking diary. Following medical advise, a few weeks ago I started walking 12,000 steps daily (10 km). As a ‘collateral advantage’ of my fitness exercise, I am discovering a new Geneva, a Geneva quite different from the one I knew while driving my car, or travelling by bus or even riding my bike. I am discovering new corners, immersing in visual ‘ecosystems’ by seeing interesting posters, ways of using fonts and details that escape me in my daily rush.


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