Friday, October 25, 2013

Landlubber

Latest word from Google is that we'll soon be able to get personalized maps - maps showing us the things we're most likely to be looking for; indeed, we'll get them whether we want to or not. This os what they've been doing for some time on searches (which is why it's a good thing periodically to use a different search engine, like the deliberately memoryless DuckDuckGo) and, more generally (unless you take the time, every time, to disable it), advertising.

Why does the extension of this customization to maps seem so troubling? It's not just that what shows up on my map will be for sale to the highest bidder, though that's a huge concern. And it's not that we don't know that people have (and should have) their own private geographies - I've often encouraged students to map these out, in fact. It's that without a common map we couldn't notice these difference, enjoy them and learn from them. We might eventually lose all sense of public space, that last vestige of the common good. Critic Evgeny Morozov:

The main reason to celebrate maps that aren't personalized has nothing to do with technophobia or nostalgia about the pre-Google days. It's quite simple, really: When you and I look at the same map, there's a good chance that we might strike a conversation about how to enrich the space that the map represents—perhaps plant more trees or build a sidewalk or install some benches.

Morozov's article puts together several things I've been trying to find words for, such as the implications of the way in which Mapquest, GPS and friends let us get by without any sense of direction, distance, journey: it's just turn right in a bit, get in the left lane, turn left and then right, recalculating, everything's ok, right again... We could drive through the same neighborhood a dozen times without knowing it. Without ever learning the "lay of the land" would we even know what land is?

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