Lost in Our Maps: A History of Cartographic Catastrophes
t’s not often that maps make headlines, but they’ve been doing so with some regularity lately. Last week, tens of millions of iPhone users found that they could suddenly leave their homes again without getting either lost or cross. This was because Google GOOG -0.86% finally released an app containing its own (fairly brilliant) mapping system. Google Maps had been sorely missed for several months, ever since Apple AAPL +0.16% booted it in favor of the company’s own inadequate alternative—a cartographic dud blamed for everything from deleting Shakespeare’s birthplace to stranding Australian travelers in a desolate national park 43 miles away from their actual destination. As one Twitter wag declared: “I wouldn’t trade my Apple Maps for all the tea in Cuba.”
There was one potential bright spot, though: Among the many mistakes found in Apple Maps was a rather elegant solution to the continuing dispute between Japan and China over the Senkaku islands. Japan controls them; China claims them. Apple Maps, when released, simply duplicated the islands, with two sets shown side-by-side—one for Japan, one for China. Win-win. (At least until the software update.) Call it diplomacy by digital dunderheadedness.
As some may recall, it was not so long ago that we got around by using maps that folded. Occasionally, if we wanted a truly global picture of our place in the world, we would pull shoulder-dislocating atlases from shelves. The world was bigger back then. Experience and cheaper travel have rendered it small, but nothing has shrunk the world more than digital mapping.