How Google and Apple’s Digital Mapping Is Mapping Us
Digital maps on smartphones are brilliantly useful tools, but what sort of information do they gather about us – and how do they shape the way we look at the world?
Over the last few years, at the kinds of conferences where the world’s technological elite gathers to mainline caffeine and determine the course of history, Google has entertained the crowds with a contraption it calls Liquid Galaxy. It consists of eight large LCD screens, turned on their ends and arranged in a circle, with a joystick at the centre. The screens display vivid satellite imagery from Google Earth, and the joystick permits three-dimensional “flight”, so that stepping inside Liquid Galaxy feels like boarding your own personal UFO, in which you can zoom from the darkness of space down to the ocean’s surface, cruising low over deserts, or inspecting the tops of skyscrapers. (The illusion of real movement is powerful; your legs may tremble.) You can swoop down to street-level in Cape Town, spot ships in the Mekong river, or lose yourself in the whiteness of Antarctica.
But you don’t, of course. What you do - or what I did, anyway, but watch anyone using Google Earth for the first time, and you’ll see they do the equivalent - is to hurtle across continents to the semi-detached house on the outskirts of York where you grew up, to peer down at a street you know well. In an era of previously unimagined opportunities for exploring the far-off and strange, we want mainly to stare at ourselves.
It is a testament to the rate of change in the world of mapping, though, that Liquid Galaxy is now essentially old hat. Google has much, much bigger plans. In June it revealed that it had already started using planes - “military-grade spy planes”, the New York senator Charles Schumer claimed - to provide more detailed 3D imagery of the world’s big cities. It also unveiled the Street View Trekker, a bulky backpack with several 15-megapixel cameras protruding on a stalk, so that operatives can capture “offroad” imagery from hiking trails, narrow alleyways or the forest floor. Almost every month, new kinds of data are incorporated into Google Maps: in June, it was 2,000 miles of British canal towpaths, complete with bridges and locks; it was bike lanes. And for the first time, Google’s dominance of digital mapping faces a credible threat: Apple has announced that it will no longer include Google Maps on iPhones or iPads, replacing it with an alternative that, an Apple source told the tech blog All Things D, “will blow your head off”.
“I honestly think we’re seeing a more profound change, for mapmaking, than the switch from manuscript to print in the Renaissance,” says the University of London cartographic historian Jerry Brotton. “That was huge. But this is bigger.” The transition to print gave far more people access to maps. The transition to ubiquitous digital mapping accelerates and extends that development - but it is also transforming the roles that maps play in our lives.