Over the past few years, at the kinds of conferences where the world’s technological elite gathers to mainline caffeine and determine the course of history, Google has entertained the crowds with a contraption it calls Liquid Galaxy. It consists of eight large LCD screens, turned on their ends and arranged in a circle, with a joystick at the center. 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. (The illusion of real movement is powerful; your legs may tremble.) You can swoop down to street-level in Cape Town, spot ships in the Mekong River, or lose yourself in the whiteness of Antarctica.
However, you don’t, of course. What you do — or what I did, anyway, but watch anyone using Google Earth for the first time, and you’ll see they do the equivalent — is to hurtle across continents to the semi-detached house where you grew up, to peer down at a street you know well. In an era of previously unimagined opportunities for exploring the far-off and strange, we want mainly to stare at ourselves.
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 — “military-grade spy planes,” New York Senator Charles Schumer claimed — to provide more detailed 3D 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 “offroad” 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 3,000km 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 an alternative that, an Apple source told the tech blog All Things D, “will blow your head off.”
“I honestly think we’re seeing a more profound change, for mapmaking, than the switch from manuscript to print in the Renaissance,” University of London cartographic historian Jerry Brotton says. “That was huge. But this is bigger.”
The transition to print gave far more people access to maps. The transition to ubiquitous digital mapping accelerates and extends that development — but it is also transforming the roles that maps play in our lives.
The idea of a one-to-one scale map of the world, portraying everything in it, is a venerable device in literature, surfacing most famously in the work of Lewis Carroll and Jorge Luis Borges; in Harry Potter, there’s a map that shows what everyone in Hogwarts is doing at every moment. However, in the era of Street View Trekker and Liquid Galaxy, these fictional maps seem somewhat less absurd — and the level of detail is only one way in which maps are changing. Increasingly, the boundary between consulting a map and interacting with the world outside it is blurring: When Google glasses, currently 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 anymore?