Hidden In Plain Sight

If you don’t know what is geocaching is, don’t feel too bad – most don’t. I kept hearing the term when researching GPS units, but didn’t really understand what it was until I downloaded the Geocaching iPhone app a short while ago. Now I’m hooked.

The missus doesn’t really understand, and I guess it does seem to be a fairly pointless activity – using a GPS receiver to look for Altoids tins hidden in parking lots and on power poles. Pointless and difficult to explain, other than that it’s fun.

But there’s more to it, of course. Once you realize that there are nearly a million geocaches (currently 914,274 according to the Geocaching web site as I write this), the world takes on a new, covert cast, reminiscent of espionage thrillers or The Crying Of Lot 49.

It is likely that you pass by at least one cache on a daily basis. You probably disregard its location as inconsequential, without any interest at all. Once you know that someone, perhaps several years ago, hid a small container with a sheet of paper there, the location suddenly becomes more interesting.

It is not unlike John Cage’s silent piece. Everyone ignores silence, and assumes there is nothing there, until forced to really listen to it.

This sort of perception alteration is not what geocaching was meant to do, of course. The idea came about when the U.S. government removed Selective Availability from the GPS signal in 2000, greatly increasing the accuracy of civilian units. “What can we do with this?” was the question – and the answer came in the form of a bucket hidden in the Oregon forest, with the GPS coordinates (45 17.460′ N, 122 24.800′ W) posted on a Usenet group. The bucket contained a cache of items, including books, software, money, and slingshot.

Geocaching has evolved into a game of sorts. Someone hides a cache, and publishes the coordinates. The cache is typically in a container such as an ammo box, Tupperware, or Altoids tin, and contains a sheet or book to sign when found, and possibly other doo-dads to be traded. Others plug the coordinates into a GPS receiver which guides them to the location. But GPS only gets you so close – in the best case, within 5-10 meters. And in the real world, even perfect accuracy leaves lots of hiding places.

Traditionally, geocaching is done on hiking trails in wilderness areas. GPS limitations require that it be an outdoor activity, but urban caching has become quite popular as well. Urban caches tend to be smaller, and require a different approach.

Most urban caches are placed so as to be hidden from view, to avoid having them being noticed by by-passers. Inside the metal skirts at the base of parking lot lamps are very common, but the variety of hiding places is as vast as human imagination.

Of course, hidden from view is a relative thing. A magnetic tin stuck to the bottom of a newspaper stand may not be visible to pedestrians or occupants of cars, but it may be visible to someone on their knees. Any cache is plainly visible from the right point of view.

People tend to ignore the world around them outside their immediate focus. This is a necessary survival skill – if we actually saw everything around us, we would be overwhelmed with a flood of sensory input. As a result, a cache can (and they frequently are) quite visible and still go unmolested.

Over the last month, I have been surprised at the things and places that I have seen that I never noticed before. There is, for instance, a white metal frame sticking out of the sidewalk a few blocks from work. It’s not unlike an old west hitching post, but made of metal. It’s particularly odd because it seems to serve no obvious purpose. It should stick out like a sore thumb because of how odd it is, but I have walked and driven by it numerous times over the last several years without ever noticing it.

I’ve managed to find about 20 caches so far, so I decided to hide a cache myself. After weighing a couple potential locations, I saw the metal hitching post. From the sidewalk, it appears to be u-channel, big enough to hold a small magnetic mint tin. Very exciting.

I placed the tin and approached from different angles to make sure it was well concealed. From the sidewalk, it is all but invisible; however, from the street the tin – attached to the side of what turned out to be a L-bar – was entirely visible. But moved to the top of the bar, it became much more discreet.

It is still visible. But if I wasn’t looking for it, I would never see the tin. Particularly since for years I didn’t even notice the metal frame it’s attached to. I decided to leave it. It would be an interesting experiment if nothing else.

I am proud of this decision. It’s like a magic trick. When you know how it’s done, the trick seems obvious, and I’m convinced everyone will see it. I’m too timid to trust that I will get away with it. But magicians have been getting away with it for millennia because if it seems unimportant and doesn’t draw attention to itself, people will not notice.

The same principle applies here, I believe. Even though someone can park their car right next to the cache, if they’re not looking for it – and they have no reason to – they will not see it. It might as well be invisible.

Geocachers have developed a community – a sort of secret society. They have their own lexicon, use a lot of complicated abbreviations, and talk of “muggles” (a la Harry Potter – a muggle being someone who is not an initiate to the secret club).

I have gotten some feedback suggesting the cache may not last long because it is too exposed. I don’t think it’s a big problem, but we shall see. Cachers are of course looking for caches, and it is easy to lose sight of the fact that most folks don’t take notice of most of the things that are plainly visible. We’ll see if I’m overestimating the hidden-in-plain-sight effect.

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