The Unintended Consequences of Google Maps

Think of a map. Odds are, the first thing that pops into your head is a big piece of paper, with folds both where the mapmaker intended and where you invented before giving up and shoving a vaguely-rectangular mess back into your glove compartment. Now think of a map that you actually use: now you’re probably thinking of a virtual map on your smartphone, most likely put out by Google Maps.

Nearly a billion people use Google Maps every day, and you have to imagine that makes up the majority of people using any maps at all. You yourself probably call it up on your smartphone several times a week, with Google Maps having replaced asking for directions so completely that doing so seems almost archaic nowadays. A billion is an astonishing number, and Google’s domination of maps gives them the power not just to reflect the world, but to change the way we see it – sometimes with unintended consequences.

Crimean Peninsula, google maps

The Power of Maps

Maps have always held the ability to shape our world. Think about it: there is no difference between the waters of Lake Superior on the American or Canadian side, but at some magical point you cross over a line on a map, and you are in a different country. Where this line falls is a matter argued about in conferences, negotiated by treaty or military force (often a combination of the two), demarcated by surveyors, and then hammered out over wary handshakes. Eventually, the line gets passed on to mapmakers, who reflect the general political consensus. There’s always been efforts to fudge the lines on maps, and sometimes maps can be propaganda, but they essentially have always been a result of statecraft. (For a fun look at the history of maps, read Ken Jennings’ delightful Maphead.)

Maps also help us negotiate our relationship to geography. Before you had a map on your smartphone, being in an unfamiliar part of the city meant you were lost. Your concept of the area was of strangeness and mystery. But now, simply being able to call up a Google Map makes the same place understandable, maybe even friendly. The presence of smartphones has transformed geography from a headache to a convenient commodity.

And this convenient information comes not from a map created by treaties and negotiations, but from a collection of pixels created by an entity more powerful than many countries: Google. After all, Google’s revenue makes it richer than many, if not most, countries. In a funny way, Google Maps is more than just the commodity it seems to be.

Even better incident reporting

Google earlier this year added a neat Waze feature to Google Maps meant to improve your navigation experience: Crowdsourced traffic data. After having been spotted in testing for several months, the incident reports feature rolled out to Google Maps for Android, featuring support for two different types of reports, including Speed traps and Crashes.

Moving forward, Google is bringing support for a brand new kind of incident report to the mobile app that will let you easily mark traffic slowdowns.

Google as a verb, and an arbitrator

Google has become such a part of our lives that “google it!” has become a synonym for “look it up.” But “google it!” has also been used by one country to attempt to resolve a border dispute with another. This first became the case a few years ago.

“Did Google Maps almost cause a war in 2010? On Nov. 3 of that year, Edén Pastora, the Nicaraguan official tasked with dredging the Rio San Juan, justified his country’s incursion into neighboring Costa Rica’s territory by claiming that, contrary to the customary borderline, he wasn’t trespassing at all. For proof, he said, just look at Google Maps.”

Google, to its credit, backed away, did more research, and restored things to the status quo on their maps. But it was the first of many controversies as Google Maps replaces virtually all other maps in our lives. That, to me, is the most interesting thing about these maps: as times passes and we forget that Google is just one company controlled by a group of private individuals, we continue to give more and more authority to its products. This is not to say that Google is trying to control the world–they have actually attempted to stay quite neutral in these disputes–but their actions are so far-reaching that their neutrality itself can have huge impact.

The Implications

The largest geopolitical story of the last month has been the Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula, previously a part of Ukraine. There have been endless disputes over whether or not it was legal, moral, justified, brutal, or a plain sham of democracy. That’s of course not for this blog to decide. But is it for Google? So far, it has maintained Crimea as being a part of Ukraine to the point where it has irritated high-level Russian officials.  

And this is where Google’s real power lies, even with its neutrality in these situations. Maps become an accepted part of how we see the world, and at some level, global opinion matters. After all, if you look at a map, and see Tibet, you would think “Of course this is part of China- look at the border lines.” But decades of activism have made you think it is not so simple, regardless of where you stand on the situation. Not every situation has that high level of clamor, though, and so most people just look at a map and assume, of course this region is part of Azerbaijan, without really knowing it is a matter of bitter dispute.

And that is the game-changing thing about the ubiquity of Google Maps. Everyone uses them, so what they say, goes. If Google were to nod to the reality of the situation, and say that Crimea is part of Russia, in a very realistic way it would become more real. Google has changed maps- they have made them better, more accurate, more useful, and more fun. They are endlessly inventive. But they have also changed what maps are- maps were once just a reflection of accepted reality. But now, it could be fair to say that reality is also created by the maps themselves. It is a reminder that, in yet another way, the power and brilliance of Google has once again altered our relationship with information.

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