Let me clear the air before I go any further: I don’t personally believe physical places (such as cities and regions) have become irrelevant. In fact, I believe that “being-in-the-world” is a fundamental part of being human and that our experience of physical place is primordial – that is to say, it always comes before our experience of imaginary, digital and other non-physical places. On a more pragmatic level, a great number of human beings live in places that are physically unsafe for one reason or another, and most of them cannot escape the physical reality in which they live (according to a 2005 UN report, more than 1 billion people live in slums worldwide). Hence, talk of the disappearance of physical place is mostly Silicon Valley rubbish, in my opinion.
Except that one must reckon with certain troubling facts and empirical trends that raise serious questions about the place that places occupy in our lives. This trend, which I discovered (as many others before me I’m sure) while using Google Trends to collect data for my Ph.D. research, is staggeringly simple: the number of Google searches for several important physical places has decreased dramatically since January 2004 (the starting date of GoogleTrends); for example, out of the 110 largest metro regions in North America, 19 only were searched more often in December 2012 than they were in January 2004. This is in spite of the fact that the number of internet users has more than tripled over the same period while the number of tourists in a given year worldwide has increased by at least 200 million (from 755,000,000 in 2004 to 940,000,000 in 2010).
These trends are, in my opinion, troubling in and of themselves, but they are especially so considering recent findings that trends in Google searches correlate closely with real-world phenomena, such as the progression flu. In my own research, I use Google to look at the variation in something I call “regional awareness”, measured as the number of searches of a city’s name followed by “region” as well as preceded by “greater” (e.g., “Montreal Region” and “Greater Montreal”). Interestingly (but also weirdly), I found several statistically significant relationships between the number of Google searches for these two expressions and a number of regional variables (such the number of municipal governments per 100 000 people in a given region, the diffusion of spending power within a region or the growth rate of a region’s economy) even when controlling for population, median household income, educational attainment and several other socioeconomic and political variables. Of course, I cannot be sure that I am measuring what I think I am measuring (i.e., regional awareness), but one thing is certain: I am not merely measuring noise.
Similarly, when it comes to the decline in the number of searches for cities as varied as Toronto, Montreal, Paris, London and New York, one cannot “affirm” that it is due to the growing irrelevance of physical place. But I have to admit, none of the other hypotheses I can think of stand the test of evidence:
The Baidu hypothesis: One might think that the number of Google searches for physical places is due to the rise of other search engines, like Baidu in China. While it is true that Baidu now captures nearly 80% of all searches in China and that it is still growing, Google’s global market share has increased significantly between 2004 and now (from 56.5% in 2004 to about 83.46% now). Hence, the decline in the number of searches for cities and other physical places cannot be attributed to a general decline in the number searches.
The Dubai hypothesis: A relatively simple and sensible explanation for these trends might be that other cities are taking the place of London, New York and Paris in the “collective unconscious”. But intriguingly, the number of searches for cities like Dubai, Shanghai and Mumbai has actually not increased steadily – and certainly steadily enough to account for the sharp decline in the popularity of Paris and New York (see below) – which, by the way, remain quite a bit more popular than the aforementioned “new global cities”.
The glocalization hypothesis: One might argue that it’s simply a question of scale: the world is going glocal, and large cities might just be losing their groove, while “local” places are becoming more popular. If the trend below is any indication, however, that hypothesis also seems flawed. Indeed, the Plateau, the Mile-End and Cabbagetown (in Toronto) all seem to be slowly losing popularity.
The Smart Phone hypothesis: The last hypothesis that I seriously considered is the possibility that Google searches for physical places may be declining as a result of people’s use of smart phones to look for “place-related” information. But considering that the iPhone was only launched in 2007 and that the downward trend in searches has been going steady since 2004, it seems obvious that there is more to it than that. Sure, a billion smart phone users might make a dent in the number of Google searches. But my guess is that most of those smart phone users are also higher-than-average internet users…
I don’t have an answer for why this trend is showing up, but as I can’t think of a solid hypothesis to “explain it away”, I am stuck with the question that I start with: are physical places losing relevance – or perhaps just popularity?
If you have an alternative explanation to propose, by all means share it. I’d sure love to know.
Post-script: It is important to note that a vigorous (academic) debate about the physicality of place and the role of technology in mediating our relationship to the world has taken place in the 1990s, at the onset of the digital revolution. Nicholas Negroponte, among others, predicted, in 1995, that “digital living [would] include less and less dependence upon being in a specific place at a specific time” (p.165). In the phenomenological camp, a large number of scholars vehemently denounced what they saw as the imposition of a particular, technologised way of studying the world. Robert Rundstrom was particularly vehement when critiquing academic geographers’ newfound fascination for Geographic Information Technology: “[digital] geographical ‘re-presentations’ […] and other exotica are just a part of a much larger world of inscriptions used in Western technoscience to disenfranchise indigenous peoples” (p.51). However, there is one important difference between that debate and the contemporary discussion of the same issue: theirs was a largely theoretical exercise, whereas the contemporary discussion is based on solid, hard data. Therefore, while it is important to acknowledge that the debate has already been had, it is also important to reckon with the new available facts.