Current Location

Mapping in perspective

by Alan Dean

Illustration by Alana Baer

published November 22, 2019

One cloudy Friday evening in October, I’m on a bus from Providence to New York, looking out as the endless gray strip that is I-95 cuts through the endless gray strip that is coastal Connecticut. I have a book with me to pass the time, but unlike the train, reading on the bus has a tendency to make me carsick. Unfortunately, peace of stomach is not worth paying Amtrak’s unaffordable ticket prices for such a relatively short journey, and so, tired of the pages in front of me, I close the book. Unlike printed words, I can rely on my otherwise quite unreliable iPhone 7 to leave my body more or less undisturbed, so I reach down to wiggle it out of my pocket.

Of course, by this point in the ride I’ve already scrolled up and down my Twitter feed, through Instagram (posts and stories), and responded to every text and message I care to. I catch myself before I open the same apps again, moving my finger to the Google Maps app. As I tap it open, I’m greeted by that familiar blue dot with a thin white outline: me. It’s me in Old Saybrook, to be specific, slowly cruising down the Connecticut Turnpike, past the small blue and white Old Saybrook train station icon, past the orange knife and fork that is Mystic Market South, and past the gray dot that is From You Flowers. While it's heartening to see what a wide variety of shopping options I’d have here in Old Saybrook if I weren't trapped on a moving bus, I’m also harshly reminded that the basic problem, the reason I opened this map in the first place remains unchanged: I’m still more than two hours away from New York, and though I can see in the form of little red strips on my blue-colored route exactly which crashes are responsible for this, even with Google Maps in my hand I’m powerless to do anything about it. Though I already knew just what the answer would be, what I’m told by the little graphic stand-in of the Connecticut landscape leaves me feeling much more dissatisfied than I was before. The fact that the dissonance between the digital representation of space sitting in my hand and the actual space out there all around me could send me on such an emotional mental journey hints at something revealing about the power of the map, or perhaps more accurately, the powerlessness of that little blue dot centering the map, me. Situating myself or my graphic icon in relation to this map, however, requires situating the map itself in a larger context.

A common (and irritating) truism people often repeat about the digital, globalized world we find ourselves living in today is that “the world has become a lot smaller.” At the same time, it is stated just as often that “the world has become a lot bigger.” The essence of this shift can really be found in the way in which these two apparently contradictory metaphors of size are both used to describe a phenomenon that is really about something else entirely: The world, in fact, has become much more interconnected, from digital communications to interstate highways to multinational tech oligopolies like Google. As all the millions and billions of personal spaces, places, and locations around earth slowly collide into and twist around each other, so too does our understanding of space in a truly global world made up of network societies (which seem to be quickly becoming one single, world-spanning network society). This sense of emplacement we carry has shifted from us thinking of our location as the space we physically embody here and now, to thinking of it as the position this space occupies within the wider network of everything else (whether that be material, digital, financial, etc.). This shift, despite being fundamentally tied up with massively complex economic, social, and political processes that extend far beyond the scope of a bus ride from Providence to New York, is quite clearly distilled into one of the most basic tools of everyday human living: the map.




The map, whether digital or analog, is such a ubiquitous and necessary everyday tool that it is quite easy to let its social and political implications slip beneath the radar, an effect that has only become more pronounced in an age where the majority of adult Americans have an online, location-based, customized map system resting in their front pocket. While past maps existed for explicit, often singular purposes, from plotting out subway lines to streets and highways to international borders, the contemporary digital map, available on practically every smartphone, aims not only to carry out all of these functions at once, but also to do so through an interface custom-built for each individual user. The more omnipresent and banal the map becomes, the easier it is to miss the fact that it is not merely an unthinking instrument giving us a direct, albeit two-dimensional view of the space around us, but a deliberately crafted representation of this space.

While the map is a tool, it is perhaps more useful to also define it as an interface, not just showing us the world but reproducing it, and visually communicating our surroundings to us in whichever way is most effective for its intended purpose: general navigation. Maps are thus inherently structured around the mapmaker’s ideas and biases of what must be seen, where they are going, and where they hope to avoid. While many standard elements of maps today function mostly as convention, they are born from economic and imperial imperatives, such as the focus given to the Northern hemisphere at the expense of the Global South by the orientation of the cardinal directions (North-South-East-West) or Mercator projection’s distortion of size (Google Maps itself used Mercator Projection until 2018, when it switched its default setting to a 3D globe). There is one especially important shift in map construction today, the widespread dissemination of what 40 or so years ago was an exclusively military technology: Global Positioning System, more commonly referred to as GPS.

GPS, a navigation system based on 24 satellites launched into orbit in the 1980s and run by the US Department of Defense, has become commonplace in the era of location-equipped smartphones, becoming fully integrated into a wide range of applications beyond just Maps, such as Uber, Grubhub, or even YikYak. GPS, as well, causes these maps to take on quite different characteristics from the sketched, hand-drawn, or even printed maps of the past; while every Google Maps application is tailored to and wholly centers you, the user, these maps are by no means separate. On the contrary, Google Maps is one massive, totalizing map system, which each of us approaches from the perspective of our own personalized application—when I open my map in Providence the top suggestion is usually my house, but to every other user in Providence, this address likely doesn’t even possess an icon of its own and fades into the gray background of the city’s unmarked space. An assumption that follows from the GPS’s totalizing effect is that this map, while filtered through clean and pleasant graphics, shows us the world as it is with no artistic error or representational liberties, and thus that this map is not an ideological work such as a 19th century map of the British Empire or an Ancient Greek world map centering the peninsula. This, of course, couldn’t be further from the truth; while GPS allows for a degree of connectivity and interactivity that was unimaginable a few decades ago, it is hardly disconnected from its social context, that of network society, even as network society becomes increasingly naturalized, normalized, and hidden in plain sight.




While the cultural understanding of space may be changing, thankfully several hours later my physical location does too, when the bus pulls into a smelly backlot behind Hudson Yards and I, set free at last, once more turn to my phone to guide me to where I need to go. Once again I see myself, the blue dot with a white outline, now projected on a very different gray-white-yellow background. Compared to clean and uncluttered mapspace that was Old Saybrook, where each icon demanded a pinching of the fingers to zoom in close enough to read just what it was, Midtown Manhattan is a visual barrage of gridded streets, brightly colored commuter train and subway lines, and hundreds of icons and labels, multiplying several times over with every little bit of zoom. This vast assortment of possibilities, all that commercial capitalism in the modern American city and its digital gatekeepers can offer is, to me, completely irrelevant; I know where I’m going. I even have the Brooklyn address marked with a little blue flag.

The only question, which I already vaguely know the answer to but nonetheless delegate to the machine, is how. Google Maps’ first suggestion, unsurprisingly, is already wrong—I don’t want to take the A train, because, though it might not fit within the protocols of the app, I know full well that the shorter walk from the station that 2 or 3 Trains stop at on the other end will compensate for the extra block or two now. It’s not long before I descend into the station and Google Maps disappoints once again, first promising me a 2 Train that never appears, then leaving me with an assortment times and numbers that have almost nothing in common with the timetable on the platform. It seems that down here in the tunnels I am left to my own devices, first by the app’s helplessness to predict the next train (to be fair, a task beyond any of us, the MTA included), and then quite literally when my train finally arrives and we slide off into the tunnel, losing cell service and severing my connection to the GPS.

Google Maps, despite its striving towards totality, is ultimately a deeply flawed representation of the world, thoroughly unprepared for the reality of a place like New York—recognizing this does not, however, seem to have done much to stop people like me from using it. Though we recognize how clunky these applications are, how they erase the nuances of moving through the cityscape, we integrate them into our routines anyways, often to the point of dependence. There is an obvious, practical tradition out of which this has emerged; after all, navigating the city in the pre-digital era was hardly carried out entirely from memory. The subway maps, street signs, and even the large 2003 Washington, DC mapbook in the back of my grandparents’ car can attest to this. A significant force behind the map’s naturalization is the way in which it has been used as an extension of our own minds and memories, whether guiding us through a place that isn’t home (like myself in New York), or correcting the faulty assumptions our brains sometimes make about which turn to take.

What’s truly new about the computerized map, beyond the refined aesthetics and the interactive, hyper-detailed interface (scaled by importance—as determined by Google’s algorithm, of course), is that this map is ours, or at least carries the appearance of being made for us. Much like the rest of the personal data economy, the digital map centers the individual as a means of commodity production, learning from each user until it can provide specific, custom-made content—in this case, learning what parts of the city you frequent, what kinds of shops or restaurants you tend to like, or the usual route you take to get home. The GPS-based map, from the perspective of the user, begins with, extends from, caters to, and exists entirely for that little blue dot with the white outline: you or I.




These digital, customized map-interfaces, now common, everyday, and thoroughly unimpressive around the world, however flawed their representation of that same world may be, do, however have more unsettling characteristics than just their imperfections, or the ease with which our society has assimilated them. Our relationship to Google Maps as users is much more of a two-way street than we may usually think, or care to admit, going far beyond the subtextual implications Maps shares with its analog predecessors, that of what the edges and highlights of the map tell us to think. As mentioned, Google Maps’ algorithm strives to perfect itself in the process of providing its navigation service, and to do so integrates the metadata of every drive to the store or subway ride home into a more and more reliable system of prediction and calculation. This data collection is not, however, merely contained within the system of Google Maps—our movements, travel times, preferred locations, and any other forms of metadata offered up to Google become integrated into a totalizing computational system that is itself integrated with many other interlinked systems, such as Google Ads, Google Street View, Google Calendar, and so on. This mass of information stored within the corporation’s internal network is then linked with outside advertisers, governments, and other manners of authorities with which Google does business or through whose purview the lines of its data web cross and twist. Cliché fears of futuristic-techno dystopia aside, in the here and now Google Maps embodies the modern city in a network society, working as the digital interface for the total and continuous transformation of cityscape into market, and every space, journey, and person inside it into a commodity.

Put in the context of these wider historical movements, I find myself feeling quite differently about the cracks that do still exist in this system. Considering the processes that they illuminate through their sabotage of smooth functionality, there is something to appreciate about the little bits of chaos and uncontrollability that companies like Google can’t account for. The illogical and inconsistent planning, confusing architecture, pointless rules, and unexpected interactions that make up the essence of life in a city—a train delay, loss of phone signal, or simply a wrong turn—gently (or not so gently) shake us out of the monotony of an automatic, GPS-guided trip from one point to the next.


ALAN DEAN B’21  has a good sense of direction.