The Null Device

Is Google Maps demolishing history?

Britain's most senior cartographer has railed against electronic maps, arguing that they obliterate the rich geography of Britain, reducing an ancient landscape filled with history to a set of roads:
Churches, cathedrals, stately homes, battlefields, ancient woodlands, rivers, eccentric landmarks and many more features which make up the tapestry of the British landscape are not being represented in online maps, which focus on merely providing driving directions, said Mary Spence, President of the British Cartographical Society.
"Corporate cartographers are demolishing thousands of years of history, not to mention Britain's geography, at a stroke, by not including them on maps," she said. "We're in danger of losing what makes maps unique; giving us a feel for a place."
While Spence's complaint seems superficially plausible, it misses the forest for the trees (no pun intended), focussing on the specifics of the implementations of a yet novel technology and ignoring the momentum that is driving progress forward. It's true that, when you look at a map in Google Maps or on a satnav unit, it, by default, shows you a minimalistic, functional map, consisting of sparse lines rendered in brightly coloured pixels. However, it is also true that there is more than that beneath the surface. Google Earth, Google Maps' big brother, renders the globe with a panoply of user-selectable layers, from the standard geographical landmarks (roads, railways, cities) to links to geotagged Wikipedia pages and photographs (albeit on some weird service nobody uses because everyone's on rival Yahoo!'s Flickr). Google Earth itself allows users to draw their own layers and send links to them. And OpenStreetMap takes it one step further, doing for mapping what Wikipedia did for textual reference works; if you find that your map of Gloucestershire is missing Tewkesbury Abbey or your map of Cental Asia got the Aral Sea wrong, you can correct it. And if you live somewhere where there is no Google Maps (and, indeed, no Ordnance Survey), you can map it yourself (or get some friends together to map it; or petition the local government/chamber of commerce to buy a few GPS units and pay some people to drive around with them, assembling a map). This has resulted in excellent maps of places Google hasn't reached yet, like, say, Reykjavík, Buenos Aires and much of Africa.

Making maps is only half of the equation; it's when one considers what can be done with all the mapping data that things become really exciting. Now that mobile data terminals (which people often still refer to as "phones"), with wireless internet connections and GPS receivers, are becoming commonplace, these soulless, history-levelling map databases are transformed into a living dialogue with and about one's surroundings. Already mobile phones which can help you find various amenities and businesses near where you are are being advertised. It is trivial to imagine this extended from merely telling you where the nearest public toilet is or how to get home from where you are into less mundane matters. Press one button, it points out historical facts about your location, with links to Wikipedia pages; press another one, and it scours online listings and tells you what's happening nearby. Follow any link to flesh out the picture as deeply as you have time for.

Spence's argument reminds me of a lot of the beliefs about computers from the 1950s, when computers were expensive, hulking beasts which were programmed laboriously using punched cards and rudimentary languages like FORTRAN and COBOL. It was too easy to extrapolate the status quo, the baby steps of a new technology, in a straight line and see a future of centralised hegemony and soul-crushing tedium, where the world is reorganised around the needs of these primitive, inflexible machines. Of course, that world never came about, as the machines evolved rapidly; instead of being marshalled into centrally computerised routines, we got iPods, blogs and Nintendo Wiis. To suggest that computerised maps will reduce our shared psychogeography to a collection of colour-coded roads is similarly absurd.

There are 4 comments on "Is Google Maps demolishing history?":

Posted by: Greg Sat Aug 30 03:04:26 2008

Yes, she's comparing two categories based on badly chosen examples. Typical paper maps are not as good as the ones she must have in mind - they're mostly just street maps like current GPS systems. And computer-based maps are on the way to becoming far better than they have been to date. When she sees a good one she'll change her mind.

Posted by: ianw Sat Aug 30 06:27:25 2008

I suspect there's an element of fear of an unknown privatised future (with the mapping no longer being in govt hands I mean) which may well include the fear of the market in actualy maps (libraries, etc) failing, with the advent of all this handheld biz, bearing in mind it's unaffordability for a large section of the traditional market of maps/libraries/etc

Posted by: acb Sat Aug 30 17:10:31 2008

Which is ironic, because in the UK, the Ordnance Survey's maps are under Crown Copyright, and semi-privatised. They were collected at the taxpayer's expense, but are not free to use, and the OS charges hefty licensing fees for their use. (In contrast, the US Geological Survey's maps are in the public domain. Not sure what the situation in Australia is.)

Posted by: gusset Wed Sep 3 19:45:59 2008

Exactly. I'd argue this the opposite way. The thing most likely to obliterate the rich [historic] geography of Britain right now is OS not making their data freely available to the next generation mappers. Yes, there is Magic Map, but it's rubbish. If they made their data available to people who could make something useful with it we would make a giant leap forward.

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