There are a number of experiments taking place on the internet.
In bookcrossings, people register a book at the website and then release it "into the wild" (i.e., leave it in some public place). The finder is asked to pass it along and record the find on the bookcrossings website. (All links below.)
In geocaching, people search out caches using GPS coordinates posted on line, and when they find the cache, they take one thing and leave another.
In phototagging, disposable cameras are left somewhere in public and the finder is asked to take one photo and pass the camera along. The camera returns to the phototagging team and they post the photos and sometimes a log of where it’s been and who used it.
In where’s george, people register dollar bills, return these to the wild, and ask finders to record the bill as it passes through their hands.
The payphone project records the numbers of 500,000 pay phones. This allows us to phone the bus station in Los Alamos or Beas dinner in Sao Paulo, Brazil and speak to perfect strangers.
There is a thesis or two to be written about these projects and no doubt, Henry Jenkins at the MIT Comparative Media program has someone on the job.
A few comments in anticipation of the full treatment:
In a way, this is the internet made to exist in the "real world." People release little packets of information (books, cameras, bills) into the world and strangers pick them up and pass them on.
The real world now acts like the virtual one. Those who have a dark cast of mind will say we are offering abject deference to the internet, that these are little offerings to the new god.
There are other explanations.
This is a simple reenchantment of the world. We live in a society of strangers, bound largely by the anonymous exchange of commodities (see the "Mrs. Woolworth, meet Sarah" entry below). The crossing/caching/tagging project reenchants this world by filling it with gestures of generosity. Commodities are replaced by gifts. Goods are replaced by highly personal offerings, stamped by the giver’s taste and circumstances. Economies of goods are replaced by an exchange of gestures and solicitudes. "Here, have this book." "Hey, take a picture." "Um, this calls for you. "
One of the things that died with modernism (to the extent that modernism is dead) is our affection for the sheer spectacular scale of a mass society. I think those Hollywood films of the post war period would usually represent our feeling for scale by shooting Manhattan from Brooklyn, so that we could see the vast magnificent plane of illuminated buildings (Days of Wine and Roses has one of these).
We are now much more interested in locales that are local, little, encompassing Boston’s north end, Montreal’s plateau, New York’s Soho. We want the particular, the odd, the unpredictable. And now, having sought out the post modernist city, we are furnishing it with little gestures of the particular, the odd and the unpredictable. We have found a new stage for the preferred drama of city life and now we are furnishing it. Enchanted, anti-economic, newly local, all of these are new cultural reflexes, or old ones returned.
These are themes that appeared vividly in the Fluxus art movement and they are now evident elsewhere in popular culture. The films Pass it forward (Mimi Leder 2000) and Serendipity (Peter Chelsom 2001) both play on this theme. So did the childrens book Paddle to the Sea. The ‘tag, you’re it’ Nike ad does as well. So does the new TV show Hack.
There is also a kind of Gaia theme here. We are with these gestures acting like a "smart mob," strangers acting in concert, furnishing the world with new networks of connection. When all of us engage in tiny acts of generosity, we remake the world by connecting it. These may be our motives, a new internet in the world, a reenchanting of the world, a localizing of the world, an interconnecting of the world but probably not. No, almost certainly, these are too grand.
There a couple of possibilities, sneaking hunches more like. Why is it we do this anonymously? If the point of the exercise is to reenchant and personalize the world, why do we not pass the book hand to hand. Why not rush up to stranger and say, "read this, I know you’ll like it"?
No, we persist with the anonymity and then the anthropological question becomes, "why do we think we are?," what role or personae do we assume in this act of anonymous giving? Why must we be "not there" at the moment that the book or the cache passes to a stranger (who remains to this extent a perfect stranger)?
It might be that we are appointing ourselves as angels. We like the idea of intervening invisibly. We are like the ideas of being agents of random goodness. We have assumed a transformation, we have given ourselves a new and strange kind of agency.
There is, frankly, something a little creepy about this aspect of the puzzle. Isnt there a hubris about assuming that a stranger will care about our taste in books? Who do we think we are? The angel theme is everywhere in contemporary culture these days, and part of our larger reenchantment. See the film by Wim Wenders, the remake by Meg Ryan and Nicholas Cage, and all those TV shows.
We may resist the idea of acting like gods, but angels
Angels we can do.
Let me end with one of the strangest aspects of this phenomenon. The founder of the pay phone project, Mark Thomas, was asked by Shift Magazine what he says when he calls one of the numbers he has collected, he said, "I never really know what to say. Sometimes I just ask for myself. Is Mark Thomas there? A blond guy with glasses?
This is spectacularly odd but somehow recognizable. We are now as transformational as this, prepared to insinuate ourselves in the world, prepared to suppose that we exist where we cannot. This is another species of hubris. But it reflects our willingness to suppose that we are now able to move up out of the local coordinates of the self, and into the world, in a photograph, a phone call, a dollar bill, a book we love, and take up some sort of residence there.
Tag, were it.
the payphone project http://www.payphone-project.com/
where’s george http://www.wheresgeorge.com/
Culp, Kristine. 2003. "Paradise Lost, found in a phone book in Edmonton, National Post. January 4, 2003: here, see also here.