I Found You: The (U/Dys)topia of Geofencing

Geofencing refers to a virtual barrier, which, when entered, presents viewers with location-based push notifications

Geofencing refers to a virtual barrier, which, when entered, presents viewers with location-based push notifications

Imagine the following scenario. You’ve arrived at your local grocery store with one hand on the cart and the other on your phone, which holds your shopping list. You enter the store, and immediately, without prior notice, your phone begins actively buzzing. A flood of notifications pop up on your lock screen, advertising “buy one can of soup get one for $0.99,” and “SALE! OLIVE OIL for $3.99!” Such is a world with geofencing, and its coming quickly.

A geofence is a virtual barrier. It uses your phone’s GPS or radio frequency identification (RFID) to recognize that you have entered a certain area, and can push notification to your device, should you allow it. Geofencing is important and cool! As mentioned in the example above, phones can behave differently depending on which area they approach. A restaurant, for example, can trigger a text message with the day’s specials to customers who enter a defined geographical area. It can be easy to consider this feature as the next-generation of location-based, digital awareness. It allows our devices to connect with the world around us, and enrich our lives by merging digital content with live content.

But such features are controversial. In an age where privacy issues hold precedence over innovation, geofencing can be a risky move by retailers. How would you react to retailers gaining access to your location as you walk about a mall or a shopping district? Would you prefer to be bombarded with offers and specials? Not many people, I presume, would answer positively.

Fred Turner from Stanford University’s Department of Communication points out a dominant approach to explaining the rise of digital libertarianism in America in his piece, “How Digital Technology Found Utopian Ideology: Lessons From the First Hackers’ Conference.” This approach affirms: “[N]ew technology will bring universal wealth, enhanced freedom, revitalized politics, satisfying community, and personal fulfillment.” Can geofencing bring all of these values to a not-so-easily accepting public? Furthermore, how can we consider geofencing as a conduit to enhanced freedom when marketers decide what content gets pushed to our devices? These are all questions that challenge the utopian view of location-based push notifications, which – despite being present on most modern smartphones – has yet to take off with the mainstream market.

Geofencing has tremendous, clear benefits. It is a matter of protecting privacy and maintaing marketing integrity in the implementation of geofencing. In the meantime, still expect to be clipping coupons for your local grocery store for a few more years.

For more information on geofencing and its implications in the retail industry, check out this Wall Street Journal article titled, “Geofencing: Can Texting Save Stores.” It provides insight into retail attempts to combat “showrooming,” where a shopper comes into a store to see an item but then makes the purchase online after finding a better price via smartphone.

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2 comments

  1. I’ve never heard of geofencing, but the concept is fascinating! Is the idea that you can download an app or turn on a certain setting to receive these notifications, or would this be automatic and non-optional? I personally love this idea–if I was walking down the street and suddenly informed that a store near me was having a sale, it would be super convenient. On the other hand, it could get quite obnoxious if I was just walking to class and being bombarded with advertisements and alerts. The privacy issue is also problematic–would we ever be free from advertisers? Our every move and geographical location would be accessible and sold to advertisers and marketers, taking away yet another freedom of ours. This illustrates the fine line between convenience and privacy infringement, which technology seems to straddle these days.

  2. Great questions about values and public resistance to tech.

    If we resist new techs, is that an indicator that they do not, in fact, embody the values we hold?
    Do we tend to assume that the “cool new tech” we build inherently take on the positive values we want them to have? Does the publics’ resistance to some new techs indicate that there is a mismatch between values we want and the values the tech holds?

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