Apple recently booted Google Maps from its iOS 6 release, replacing the world standard for mapping & location with its own offering (having cobbled together the acquisition spoils from C3 Technologies). For people actually trying to find their way around, the results have been less than stellar. Complaints abound.
Google has had 5 years of public use to refine their service, built on 6 more years of tech & imagery grabbed from their acquisition of CIA-funded Keyhole, Inc. Google Maps & Google Earth have arguably revolutionized the way we relate to place & space, enabling us to extend ourselves across the world exploring it in rich detail – or to simply find a gas station in an unfamiliar city without fear of getting lost. Google’s mapping products remind us that they’re still a pretty cool company that seems committed to being more than just AdSense jockeys.
Of course, Apple knows that the center around which we bind our digital and analog lives is location, and they don’t want Google sitting on that plum as paid intermediary.
As they say, the map is not the territory. But maps are typically trying to get as close to the territory as possible. Sometimes reliance on our maps puts us in conflict with the territory when the two diverge (also a common psychological malady). Of the many possible ways of seeing these divergences, there’s a process of transcription happening – a copy operation trying to replicate the solid world within the virtual. Rough drawn maps are replaced by satellites. Street lines replaced by street views from spinning cameras. Topography is replaced by LIDAR & 3D mesh giving height to texture-mapped surfaces. Top-down flat images of cities are extruded onto 3D objects. How long before we can see our friends walking around in living, immersive maps as little dots or profile gifs or articulated avatars..?
Through lens and scope, algorithm and pixel, we read the world, copy it, and then rebuild it adjacent to the original. With such a complex transcription process, copy errors are inevitable.
Google Maps have had their share of interesting aesthetic glitches, anomalies, and odd captures (and some cool creations like the Street Ghosts project to print life-size images of people captured on Google Street View and place the cut-outs in the same real-world spot as the original image). Likewise, Apple’s new mapping service, while possibly unreliable to folks trying not to get lost, offers a rich trove of New Aesthetic images contorted through some slight of algorithmic and telescopic confusion. Another signature reminder of the blinking machines peering at our live’s and showing us what they see. In turn, the errors breed more algorithms to crawl through sets of image tiles looking for glitches, reporting & repairing them to get the map closer to the territory, to make it more… human (until they seize the nanofabbers and start modding the territory to match the map glitches..). To quote Clement Valla speaking of Google Maps in his essay, The Universal Texture:
These collected images feel alien, because they are clearly an incorrect representation of the earth’s surface. And it is precisely because humans did not directly create these images that they are so fascinating. They are created by an algorithm that finds nothing wrong in these moments. They are less a creation, than a kind of fact – a representation of the laws of the Universal Texture.
The landscape of Apple Maps sometimes buckles, bridges stretch & bend, ground planes suddenly heave up as residential blocks ripple & melt. Like a malformed limb or facial dysplasia, the representational worlds of Apple & Google maps express these transcription errors like genetic mutations cast in grand scale. Meaningless to the bots, these programmatic deformations betray the organic nature of their creators. In our deputizing of sensing machines & autonomous code to recapitulate the world into intangible warehouses & hand-held mirrors, the resulting simulacrum bears the bugs & glitches & beta-testing scars of our quickening drive to capture it all.
I find the result to be rather entertaining. But I won’t be updating my iPhone to iOS6 any time soon. There be dragons…