ADIGITAL mapping van, with a giant camera mounted on a crane, pulled up outside our home the other day. I didn’t know whether to duck for cover, tidy up of the front garden or run inside and turn off all our online activity. Briefly, I thought about asking the driver if he was lost.
That the mapping van could provoke such reactions was less about my state of mind and more to do with the book I was reading, On the Map. This history of maps takes us from Stone Age drawings to the arrival of Google maps and everything in between. And a lot has happened since European sailors marked the edges of known civilisation with drawings of dragons.
Firstly, there aren’t too many areas where dragons can live in peace any more because there are millions of maps being created daily and chances are you’ve got a few on your smart phone now. Maps are digital confetti and it’s not just because we want to know where to go.
The collision of data, devices and satellites means we can map almost every form of human activity. We can use a map to find out where our friends are, where waves are breaking, where the jobs are and where that bloody bus is. Policymakers use maps to find voters, violent areas, obese suburbs and, indeed, lost aircraft.
One of the biggest trends is called the map mashup — information linked to postcodes. So far, someone has done a map of where news events broadcast by the BBC are occurring; where the Top 99 women ranked by Askmen magazine live (clue, California); and where polar bears are wintering (clue, not California).
These maps tell us a lot about the world. For instance, health experts are intrigued that people who live further away from parks are fatter than those who live within a ball’s throw of parks. But we also learn that the British like talking about soccer, Darwin doesn’t inspire tourist snaps and California has more hot women than polar bears.
And if that’s too much information, well that’s the point. As the author says, Google’s intention is “to map every place on earth in more detail than anyone has ever managed before and in more detail than most people had previously considered necessary”.
Maps have always told us where we are in the world — from those 15th-century parchments to those impossible-to-refold maps that took tourists around the world in the 20th century. But whereas older maps told us where we are in relation to the world, new maps tell us where the world is in relation to us.
That’s called Me-Mapping. According to the author, Simon Garfield, Google and all its competitors are pulling their energy into self-centric maps that place “the user at the instant centre of everything”. So you can whip out your smart phone and discover bars near to you, friends who are nearby, buses you need to catch and ATMs that can give you the fare. And, of course, the next step in the cartography-of-you movement is to create a map of everything you do, everywhere you go, everyone you talk to, every meal, phone call and computer stroke you make — and bung it on a map of You. You can be the navigator, cartographer and cartouche maker of your own life. I think Atlas just shrugged.
Just like health tracking devices, personal genome profiles and personal video cameras, the biggest breakthroughs in technology all come down to the personal. There are six billion personal maps out there and Vasco da Gama wouldn’t recognise any of them. Then again, if you know your way around but know nothing about what lies beyond your range of interests, or beyond your bus stop, you’re not much more informed than those sailors who imagined dragons at the edge of the known world.
It makes you pine for those days of playing the accordion with bi-fold maps while trying not to get robbed in Rome. There are no places left where dragons might live, there are no unknown destinations, there are just billions of digital footprints making tracks and ending up on maps. And the only people looking lost are drivers of mapping vans.