Since 2005, Google has mapped 28 million miles of road in 194 countries. And it won’t rest until the whole planet is on its servers. Tom Chivers reports on the mammoth operation and asks: is it ruining the way we travel?
Are you planning a holiday to North Korea? Probably not. But if you are, your job will be a lot easier now that Google Maps covers the place. You could, if you like, use it to navigate your way from Yongbyon nuclear site, along Nuclear Test Road (as it is, apparently, called) and to Camp 22, one of the many scenic prison-labour camps along the country’s border with China.
What’s more, you can do it all on beautifully rendered satellite photos of the area. Of course, you’d struggle with mobile internet connectivity, but even that, nowadays, needn’t be a problem – you can download the maps before you go. Frankly, it is surprising that the Pyongyang Office of Tourism doesn’t make more of the facility.
“Our goal is to put together a sort of digital mirror of the world,” says Dan Sieberg, a Google exec and self-described “evangelist” for the Google Maps revolution. (Religious imagery comes naturally to Googlers: one of Sieberg’s colleagues describes him as a “guru.” The whole company has a slight hippy-cult feel to it; the Telegraph can report that there are few more awkward feelings in life than turning up at the Google office, surrounded by people in three-quarter-length trousers and novelty slippers, while wearing a suit and tie.
It feels like your cufflinks are burning your skin.) Anyway, the construction of Google’s “digital mirror” was never going to be stopped by a few pesky details, such as an unending 60-year war between North and South Korea, or the existence in one of those countries of a brutally repressive communist police state.
Google Maps is now so ubiquitous, such a vital part of so many of our lives, that it feels odd to think it didn’t exist until 2005. Of all of the search giant’s many tentacles reaching octopus-like into every area of our existence, Maps, together with its partner Google Earth and their various offspring, can probably claim to be the one that has changed our day-to-day life the most.
“I think that mapping is one of those things that we perhaps couldn’t live without,” says Sieberg. “It’s become such an essential part of understanding a new city, or getting to a meeting quickly, or planning a vacation.” Any of us who, now, sets off to meet someone with only the vaguest idea of where we’re going, confident in the ability of the magic box in our hands to guide us, knows what he means.
In the same way that the advent of mobile phones stopped us having to worry about arranging to meet at a certain place and time (“Ring me when you get to the station, yes?”), so the appearance of maps on those phones has stopped us having to worry about knowing our way around a city. We can arrive anywhere – Edinburgh, Cologne, Tokyo – and within moments know our way to our hotel, have a list of the best-rated restaurants and know the best route to take on the metro.
The figures involved are bordering on silly. About a billion people use Google Maps every month, working out at about a billion searches a day. One hundred and 90-four countries have been at least partly mapped, with a total of 28 million miles of road.
(Google will tell you that its ability to warn you of heavy traffic on those roads saves humanity two years of frustration every day, across 600 cities worldwide.)
Street View, the bit of Maps that gives you a pedestrian’s-eye view of the roads you’re looking at, is expanding at an intimidating rate: its jaunty, ubiquitous little electric cars have driven down more than five million miles of road, across 50 countries, their camera-turrets recording all the way.
And it is unlikely to slow down, because Google, being Google, is uncomfortable with anything that looks like standing still. Recently it noticed that the aforementioned jaunty and ubiquitous electric cars were not much use unless they had a road to trundle down. So it looked at other options.
First, a Google tricycle began cheerfully Street-Viewing city parks and university campuses across the United States. Then someone decided that they needed indoor maps too, so they built a trolley and started pushing that through museums and the like: “In the UK, we’ve got all the major airports, lots of train stations, shopping centres, markets,” says Sieberg. “You can imagine that, if you’re at an airport and you want to find the right gate, or in a mall and you just want to find the toilet, this will come in handy.” He looks momentarily shifty. “I’ll let you into a secret. We actually have indoor maps of the New York Google building.” No longer will any Googler be caught short between meetings.
But trolleys and trikes can’t go everywhere, so the march had to continue. A camera-equipped snowmobile was sent down the slopes of Whistler, mapping it for any GPS-enabled skiers who wanted to plan their routes in advance.
And, finally, someone realised that until the Street View cameras could go anywhere humans could go, it wouldn’t be enough. So they built a backpack and started getting people to walk around with them. The Trekker, strapped to some operator’s back, has clambered down the Grand Canyon, trekked through the Canadian Arctic and Antarctica, and zoomed down the Amazon on a motor boat.
At the same time, underwater cameras have started mapping six locations, including the Great Barrier Reef and the Galápagos Islands and Google planes have started flying overhead, taking photos that are being made into 3D images of 40 cities in the US, and Rome, according to Sieberg, and soon many more.
And for those parts of the world where flying a plane or trekking with a backpack is frowned upon, Google has called on an army of 40,000 people worldwide to contribute photographs and fill in details. Sieberg calls them “citizen cartographers”, and it’s these foot soldiers who have built the maps of North Korea.
(In the North Korean case, it was complicated by the fact that the cartographers couldn’t get into the country itself: instead the maps were put together from the memories of people who had either visited the country or used to live there, and fact-checked against satellite imagery.)
When talking to Googlers about this, it’s hard not to get swept up in the excitement. The “evangelism” of Sieberg and his colleagues is infectious. But many people are worried about where it is taking us – not simply the Street View stuff, but the entire encroachment of technology on travel.
The most widely expressed concern has been privacy: Nick Pickles, the director of the pressure group Big Brother Watch, has warned “you won’t be able to sunbathe in your garden” without worrying about a Google plane spying on you in your bikini. (Sieberg is dismissive: “The resolution is not a concern for a person on the ground. It’s just not going to be identifiable.”)
And the internet giant has been forced to apologise after it was revealed that its Street View cars downloaded emails, text messages, photographs and documents from householders’ Wi-Fi networks while photographing their roads.
These are serious issues, but some people are just as concerned about the risk Google Maps poses to the experience of travelling. Part of the joy is the mystery that surrounds a trip; not knowing what you will see or where the mood will take you.
Maps can strip away that spontaneity. “People spend a huge amount of time and energy and resources planning their trip, researching where they’re going,” says Aaron Quigley, a professor of human-computer interaction at the University of St Andrews. “The risk is that you end up overplanning, when so much of travel is about serendipity, finding that little-known path.”
There’s also a risk that making it so easy to see anywhere in the world before you get there could take away the magic of seeing it for real for the first time. What’s more, because Google Maps is linked to review sites such as Yelp or Google’s own Zagat, there is the possibility that everyone will head for the same well-reviewed destinations. “There’s a risk that we all get sucked into this quagmire of sameness, a very banal, whitewashed sameness,” says Prof Quigley.
It’s not all negative, of course. As Sieberg says, the other side of this coin is that new places become visible to us in ways they weren’t before: “Whatever’s around you, whatever’s near you, opens up.” It provides tourists with a way of avoiding the ghastly overpriced tourist traps around the main square, by showing the well-reviewed, reasonably priced ones a couple of streets away, and then allowing you to find them with Maps.
“You can try before you buy,” he says. “My wife and I used Street View last year before a holiday in London, to look at hotels and see if they had decent access for strollers, because we were bringing our daughter.” He points out that you can also examine a neighbourhood for amenities, or check that it looks safe.
Prof Quigley agrees that the “McDonaldisation” of the world isn’t inevitable. “I’m sure we’ll all have our McDonald’s holidays, our easyJet experiences, but people realise that that’s a weak imitation of what they could be doing,” he says. “We went to a place in the mountains in Morocco, overlooking a big washed-out valley, and they had this festival on a hillside, and they lit it up with candles and a bonfire. It was an irreplaceable moment. No one else could do this. And there are hundreds of places doing something equivalent: not giving you a better breakfast, or more food, but an experience. And technology is allowing people to become an advocate for these experiences.”
And, of course, Google Maps allows us to see things we would never normally see. “I’m not Muslim, so I’ll never be allowed to go to Mecca, to see the Kaaba,” says Prof Quigley. “But I’ve seen it on Google Earth, and I can zoom in to the great black stone, and it’s incredibly impressive. And then I can zoom out, to a mile or so in the air, and you see the city like eight Las Vegases glued together, and it’s just mind-blowing. Similarly, there are islands off the coast of Scotland where tourists aren’t allowed because they were doing too much damage to the environment.
“There are lots of places, we’ll never be able to go, and this sort of thing provides a window.” But the “window” is damaging when you’re looking through it unnecessarily. “When you’re a tourist you should be there to see what’s in front of you – not looking at your iPhone, saying ‘Here’s an amazing photo of the thing I’m supposed to be looking at’,” he says.
He thinks an eyes-up, rather than eyes-down, technology could change things profoundly, “freeing our attention from our devices, reconnecting us with physical reality, the view of reality that we actually see”. That may be on the horizon, with Google’s Glass project – a pair of glasses that can overlay digital information onto your vision – although whether it catches on remains to be seen.
Whatever the risks and benefits, though, there’s no going back to a pre-Google Maps time. We rely on it too much. Last year, when Apple’s iPhones stopped using Google Maps, people were forced briefly to use Apple’s (at the time) unreliable own-brand equivalent. Within days, six motorists in Australia had to be rescued from the middle of a remote forest, after being directed 40 miles off target.
One of them had been stranded for 24 hours without food or water. That is an extreme example, but large sections of our species have forgotten how to get from A to B unless their phone points the way. Even, these days, in North Korea.
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