A joystick permits three-dimensional "flight". Photo: SCMP

Google's and Apple's digital maps blur with real world

Digital maps are transforming our lives, but as we use them we add to Google's and Apple's store of data about us. Where will that lead us?


Google has a fabulous contraption called Liquid Galaxy, which it uses to amuse and impress guests at conferences for the cyber elite. It consists of eight large LCD screens, turned on their ends and arranged in a circle, with a joystick at the centre. The screens display vivid satellite imagery from Google Earth, and the joystick permits three-dimensional "flight", so that stepping inside Liquid Galaxy feels like boarding your own personal UFO, in which you can zoom from the darkness of space down to the ocean's surface, cruising low over deserts, or inspecting the tops of skyscrapers. You can swoop down to street level in Cape Town, spot ships in the Mekong river, or lose yourself in the whiteness of Antarctica.

It is a testament to the rate of change in the world of mapping, though, that Liquid Galaxy is now essentially old hat. Google has much, much bigger plans. In June it revealed that it had already started using planes to provide more detailed 3-D imagery of the world's big cities. It also unveiled the Street View Trekker, a bulky backpack with several 15-megapixel cameras protruding on a stalk, so that operatives can capture "off-road" imagery from hiking trails, narrow alleyways or the forest floor. Almost every month, new kinds of data are incorporated into Google Maps: in June, it was 3,000 kilometres of British canal towpaths, complete with bridges and locks; in July it was bike lanes. And for the first time, Google's dominance of digital mapping faces a credible threat: Apple has announced that it will no longer include Google Maps on iPhones or iPads, replacing it with its own alternative.

"I honestly think we're seeing a more profound change, for map-making, than the switch from manuscript to print in the Renaissance," says the University of London cartographic historian Professor Jerry Brotton. "That was huge. But this is bigger." The transition to print gave far more people access to maps. The transition to ubiquitous digital mapping is also transforming the roles that maps play in our lives.

Increasingly, the boundary between consulting a map and interacting with the world outside it is blurring: when Google glasses, in prototype, can project directions, or reviews of the restaurant you're looking at, directly into your visual field, what does the word "map" mean any more?

For many of us, pulling out a smartphone to find the quickest route to a meeting, or to the pub, is such a daily habit that it's hard to remember how absurdly recently it became possible. Google Maps was launched in 2005.

It became possible for users to create "mash-ups", building sites in which Google's basic maps were overlaid with other data: information about flats for rent, or the course of international warfare throughout history, or the best Indian restaurants in Glasgow.

Google Maps came about because the company's co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin had been fascinated by the zooming satellite imagery used by United States news networks to report on bombing raids in Iraq. Those terrain graphics were provided by Keyhole, a software company that the CIA had helped to finance. Page and Brin bought Keyhole, repackaging the firm's software as Google Earth.

Google likes to talk about services such as Maps and Earth as if they were providing them for fun. But a search engine, in some sense, is an attempt to map the world of information - and when you can combine that conceptual world with the geographical one, the commercial opportunities suddenly explode. Search results for restaurants or doctors or taxi firms mean far more, and present far juicier opportunities for advertisers, when they are geographically relevant. And then there's the most important point - the really exciting or troubling one, depending on your perspective. In a world of GPS-enabled smartphones, you're not just consulting Google's or Apple's data stores when you consult a map: you're adding to them.

Exactly what information the companies collect, and what they do with it, remains much debated. But it's easy to grasp the basic commercial calculation. The more exactly your phone knows where you are, the more accurately you can be served with advertisements based on the places you'll be passing. There's no technical reason why, perhaps in return for a cheaper phone bill, you might not consent to be shown not the quickest route between two points, but the quickest route that passes at least one Starbucks. Combining GPS with the new Indoor Positioning System, which uses cellular and other phone data to track phones much more precisely, shops could easily track customers' movements among the aisles, adjusting displays on a day-by-day basis. "The map is mapping us," says Martin Dodge, a senior lecturer in human geography at Manchester University. "I'm not paranoid, but I am quite suspicious and cynical about products that appear to be innocent and neutral, but that are actually vacuuming up all kinds of behavioural and attitudinal data."

To techno-zealots and sceptics alike, the media panic over maps and privacy seems rather misplaced. But this debate matters. Google and Apple insist, plausibly enough, that they are not interested in anyone's individual data: the commercial value lies in the patterns they can detect in the aggregate. But you'd be forgiven for not being entirely reassured. In any case, the concern that someone else might discover certain things about you is not necessarily the most disorienting implication of the new generation of maps. More dizzying is the thought that Google's and Apple's maps might not just observe our lives, but in some sense come to play a role in directing their course.

It can be easy to assume that maps are objective: that the world is out there, and that a good map is one that represents it accurately. But that's not true. Any square kilometre of the planet can be described in an infinite number of ways: in terms of its natural features, its weather, its socio-economic profile, or what you can buy in the shops there.

What happens when we come to see the world through the eyes of a handful of big companies based in California? You don't have to be a conspiracy theorist, or an anti-corporate crusader, to wonder about the subtle ways in which their values and interests might come to shape our lives.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Dangerous blurring of maps with the real world