the fo­rum

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Deirdre Macken

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.

Jon Kudelka is on leave

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