Saturday, December 22, 2012

Where does Google Maps put you?

There is something disappointing about the austere potential perfection of the new maps - each of us now stands as an individual at the center of our own map worlds. - Simon Garfield

In school, I remember hearing debates on how wall maps discriminates in favor of northern western countries.  China is tucked away on the far right, with Europe centered, and Australia is on the bottom --why not the top?  Greenland is impossibly big for it's actual size, as is every land away from the equator.  So egalitarians created new maps. But they're too late.  Map gazers' faces glow with the dull blue of a smartphone, and they only make contact with wall maps with they make physical contact with walls.  These collisions will eventually stop once smartphone makers build sonar into their next versions.

If you are a smartphone map user, the maps centers the world on you.  As you rotate the map rotates around you. The rest of the world beyond the radius of your trip to the coffee store need not exist. And if you lose connectivity, your phone won't know about the rest of the world, save for some limited caching abilities that you wished you would have thought about before the phone went dark.

For purely functional reasons, that doesn't bother me.  Having a map of an entire city in front of me presents me with nothing useful unless I know where I am on that map.  We spent an hour driving around the outskirts of Paris trying to find our rental cottage only to realize we kept passing it.  The address numbering system made it difficult to figure out where we actually were.  Actual human intervention in the form of a late night phone call.
Though those who gratefully downloaded Google Maps on their smartphones last week might disagree, there is something valuable about getting lost occasionally, even in our pixilated, endlessly interconnected world.

Here on functional reasons again, I disagree.  My standalone GPS has helped me to get lost on three continents.  I have the freedom to wonder off, ignore the signs, and just walk toward something beautiful because I know it can help get me back. Otherwise I would be tied to the safety of only touristy areas with plentiful friendly English speakers who also happened to know where I needed to go.  One night in France, I found none of those.  The train scheduling system crashed, leaving passengers clueless as to at what time and what platform they needed to be on.  I finally got on a train but it got to the outer-lying train station after the local buses were done for the day.

I could have paid $50 for a taxi, but with a GPS in my pocket, I began a three hour adventure through the countryside.  A paper map would have killed me because I would lose myself in the map.

As I walked through the hills between Mantes des Joliet, the sun appears to rise and set again and again.  I took this picture while lying down in the someone's front yard to get the right angle on the sun.  I didn't see any actual people for a couple of hours.  Eventually the GPS battery did die and it was me at dusk, but I was close enough.

So use your phone and GPS for good!  Get lost and discover some new places and adventures.

Confirmation that I had navigated to the correct town.

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