At their big developer conference this week Google introduced a slew of new features for Google Maps, but one caught my eye more than any other. Google suggested that the future of maps would be personalized. On their blog they asked, “What if we told you that during your lifetime, Google could create millions of custom maps…each one just for you?” They expand on the idea:
“In the past, such a notion would have been unbelievable: a map was just a map, and you got the same one for New York City, whether you were searching for the Empire State Building or the coffee shop down the street. What if, instead, you had a map that’s unique to you, always adapting to the task you want to perform right this minute?”
This led Emily Badger at Atlantic Cities to wonder if Google’s new maps might take the “filer bubble” experience into the physical world, “We may never know what we are not seeing.” While, I share Badger’s concern, I also think that we are always already rewriting the maps we use to navigate the swiftly changing world around us. The question we should ask is do we trust the maps made by Google’s algorithm more or less than we trust those made by our hearts and minds.
In the fall of 2006 Rebecca Solnit published an essay called “Maps for the Year Ahead” in Orion Magazine. The piece offers a number of striking observations about space, place, and land in the wake of tragedy. Looking at events like the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco and hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, Solnit draws a connection between urban sprawl and the power of natural disasters to make us feel disoriented and, in a very real sense, ungrounded.
This reminded me of a friend of mine who led rafting trips. He once told me that each year, and after big rain storms, river guides have to re-learn the river because the river bed changes so dramatically. Solnit’s discussion of displacement and mapping made me wonder how often we have to re-learn our landscape and how quickly it can change.
This is from the opening paragraph of her piece, in which she is describing some of the reactions of displaced people whose communities were devastated by Katrina:
“A listener called in to my local radio station recently to describe how she and her sister set the navigational system in their car to the coordinates of their vanished hometown. They enjoyed traveling around while the car gave them eclectic, evocative directions to a place on the other side of the country that no longer exists. It was a lovely subversion of the direction-finding feature on those new cars and a brilliant way to keep their memory of a lost place alive.”
How do we map the contours of home? How much of that mapping is done with the head and how much with the heart?
The last time I visited my childhood home in central New York, the landscape had changed so dramatically that I found myself disoriented. However, there was no natural disaster to blame in this case. On the edges of the small college town I grew up in there had always been a strip of car dealerships, fast food joints, and supermarkets. It used to be that, interspersed amongst these precursors to the modern big box store, were neighborhood diners, a cobbler, and the local Salvation Army.
On my most recent trip back, the edges of the strip gleamed with tall new buildings and bright neon signs for chain restaurants, drug stores, and every big box store imaginable. Everything looked new, down to the freshly laid concrete that seemed to flow endlessly like veins of coal. The few neighborhood establishments that had held on to their pieces of land looked run down and terribly quiet.
Perhaps most troubling of all, however, was the amount of new land that had been found and lost so quickly. These new stores were built three deep, and it was only through their construction I realized quite how much land lay back beyond the old storefronts and parking lots. Vast fields, wetlands, and woodlots were discovered and disappeared almost in the same breath.
On the outskirts of so many towns and cities in America there are forgotten wildernesses like these. But once forgotten, they are quickly destroyed. It is as though I remember a landscape without ever noticing it before – a landscape only evident in its own destruction.
Of course, these new shopping plazas called for new roads, and I end up turning down one of these freshly paved side streets, lost in the valleys created between behemoth buildings. There is something deeply painful about feeling lost on the streets of your own hometown. A place just a few years ago I could have navigated with my eyes shut, looks almost unrecognizable now.
What do we lose when we lose our sense of direction, our sense of place?
I think of those maps you see in malls, with the maze of brightly colored stores. Laid out in front of you a big red arrow points, “you are here.” Looking around my hometown, I feel the weight of that red arrow and recognize that “here” is becoming an increasingly generic place, replicated a thousand times over across the country. We are here. These are the times we live in.
All of which leads me to wonder where we are going.
My home town is known for its gorges, carved over millions of years by glaciers and rivers. It’s a landscape whose features took generations to develop. Now, like the river guide, I find I need to re-learn this homeland every year because it changes so fast. Looking around at the lakes of parking and the streams of vehicles, flowing in and out of the lots, eddying around storefronts, I wonder if these gorges of steel and glass will eclipse those of rock and earth.
We have a choice of which maps to use as we move forward. How can the maps we have created in our hearts and minds of places that have shaped us, the maps that are rich in public space and open land, town squares, city parks, community gardens, how can those maps help us find our way? Perhaps we need maps of the places we have lost because they can still lead us, can still direct us, can still shape our sense of the world. The choices we make not only respond to, but also shape the maps we use.
Our challenge is to make new maps without forgetting the old ones, to chart new paths and rediscover our home anew.
A version of this post was originally published on this blog in 2007.