We no longer go to maps, they come to us
Google, Foursquare et al make online maps our egocentric own. It's all a long way from the cartographical gems of old
We may never see its like again. Mapping is in the middle of its own digital revolution whose consequences, not all of them favourable, are rapidly changing our lives. Maps are no longer static but dynamic, changed in real time by millions of users and offered to us free of charge by the likes of Google, Microsoft, Yahoo or openstreetmap.com, the collaborative global map made for the people by the people that William Penn would surely have approved of.
We no longer go to maps, they come to us: to our computers and, increasingly, to our mobile phones, which are with us 24 hours a day. Unlike the beautiful maps at the British Library, often created as artworks in their own right or statements of the power and wealth of their owners, today's online maps are ours and egocentric. We don't just want to know which roads to take, but where the nearest ATMs, museums and restaurants are, complete with user ratings. We want to walk down streets to suss them out before visiting them using Google Street View (or its rivals). Increasingly we want to know how near our friends are, and maybe even what this street looked like 400 years ago.
Goodness knows where all this is leading to. The mapping revolution is barely six years old. What will be on offer 10 years hence? Maybe it will be live satellite imaging, so you can see when a car leaves a parking space in the next road, or try to track down Osama bin Laden from your mobile phone.
The prospect of anyone in the world being able to make their own contribution to a map – thanks to free access to satellite positioning techniques – is awesome, but so is the downside. Some of the fears emerged at a public event hosted this week by the British Library to coincide with the exhibition, entitled The New Mapping Revolution, at which Ed Parsons, geospatial guru at Google, and Steve Chilton, one of the driving forces behind OpenStreetMap (which actually predates Google Maps) gave some fascinating insights into the new mapping world. But there were fears from the floor that the intrusive nature of the new maps marked yet another step in the global sleepwalk towards a surveillance society. It has become commonplace for people using services such as Google Latitude, Foursquare, Audioboo, Facebook (as of this month) and a host of Twitter-related sites to allow the map to let your friends know exactly where you are. As with our experience so far with CCTV cameras, the short-term advantages seem to outweigh any social damage. But this has dulled our awareness of what could happen in future if criminals hack into what is in effect a map of our lives, or if governments use powers they already have to force Google and others to hand over the quite mindboggling information they have accrued about every aspects of our lives.
One of the few places where there appears to be a national, if idiosyncratic, debate is Germany. There has been strong and ongoing opposition to the way the otherwise amazing Google Street View (which as of this week can now be used with Android mobiles in Europe) invades privacy by letting others see what your house looks like – yet Germans seem much less concerned about their new identity cards which contain embedded RFID chips, which contain an abundance of personal information and might even be able to be used for tracking purposes. That wouldn't have a cat's chance of being accepted in Britain. Unsurprisingly, the Germans are very fond of OpenStreetMap, a global success story – it was used to map Haiti after the earthquake – which started life at University College, London.
For the moment – until something serious happens – I am still smitten by the way the revolution enables us to take control of our own maps, especially when publicly owned data is made available to developers to produce stunning products like the Cycle Hire Widget for Android phones, which tells you within seconds how many bikes are at that moment vacant at each station in the Boris Bikes rental scheme in London.
This is one of the ways maps are converging with reality. Instead of being a static retrospective reminder of how things were they have become a real-time monitor of what we are doing now.
This could mean, as one of the audience at the British Library feared, lead to more dumbing down, as future generations may feel they no longer need to go through the process of learning about traditional maps just as they might feel they don't need to learn their tables because of calculators. Progress often brings deterioration in disrupted areas. But the clock can't be put back. There are now over 100 million active users of Google Maps alone. They are becoming a pivotal part of our lives.