Saturday, 11 May 2013

Google Maps: My Virtual Love Affair

Human kind has, throughout its own history, attempted in many ways to challenge both time and space through various medium for the purpose of ‘species introspection’; knowing more about the ourselves by leaving our own environment. Perhaps one of the most telling examples of this abstraction is the map - a tool used over the past 3000 years by humans to gain a new understanding of the world, fueled by a universal desire to see a place in its entirety. Maps have been created and used in every corner of the world and have changed form and shape over time. Our modern maps are dramatically different to the scrawling cuneiform once produced by early geographers and cartographers.

On its own virtual surface, a mapping system like Google Maps seems one-dimensional and unchanging. Insert your desired coordinates, point and click and you’re given direction. But a more intense critique of this online interface uncovers its many layers as a landmark tool of human interaction. Select street view for an interactive 360 degree display of your neighbour’s front lawn or the Burj Khalifa or even the Great Coral Reef and Grand Canyon (both new locations to explore on Google Maps). Google earth transforms the map into a topographic representation of the world, including towering mountain ranges and deep canals.

An image that perpetually fascinates me - Earth at Night.
I fell in love with Google Maps after I began to travel Canada and would use it to plot itineraries and en route destinations. Identifying an approximation of the duration of your trip, including traffic, weather and road conditions while also learning about local attractions all in one website was (and still is) incredibly helpful. Fueled by an amateur geographer like myself, Google Maps is the perfect place to better understand a place like Canada.

Recently, Google maps has opened its program to anyone interested in an effort to openly share knowledge on places and things in every corner of the earth. Users can now upload photos, write reviews and create videos of their own travels, building a network of media-savvy explorers who can connect with each other’s experiences. This trend, known as ‘Post-modern Cartography’ by academics, is rearranging our traditional ideas on what a map is and what it can do.

The effect of seeing the earth holistically gave human kind an appreciation that could not have been experienced before the creation of maps; the planet we experience from above is not marked by borders, but geographical diversities, light pollution and vast deposits of land and water. From this vantage point a place like Canada is vast wilderness blotched with cities and towns. This phenomenon – known as ‘The Overview Effect’ – is the exact sensation teased out after spending some time in a place like Google Maps. Philosopher David Loy describes this rush: ‘To have that experience of awe is, at least for the moment, to let go of yourself; to transcend the sense of separation.’

In the case of Google Maps, we find plenty of examples of how nature and humans are interpreted and re-interpreted by users and creators, forming a map that transcends mere topological information. At this juncture the opportunity for a platform that becomes subject to its users has the potential to change shape throughout time. I do not wish to frame Google Maps as intrinsically good or bad, but a technology that absorbs the values we project unto it. Interactivity in map making broadens its use as a reciprocal tool, having impact on both the user and the used. The future of Google Maps depends on this new form of engagement, and just how it will continue to change is increasingly subject to who is behind the screen.

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