Rob Walker | Essays

Global Entertainment

Maps have always had admirers: people collect them, display them, linger over them in museum exhibitions. Yet it is only in recent years that geography, organized not on paper but online, has really arrived as popular entertainment — as diverting as the latest stupid video your Facebook friends are linking to yet somehow more virtuous or, at times, titillating. Or both.  

Much of the heavy lifting on this front has been undertaken by Google, which rewrote the rules of Web-based geography. Its Google Earth product aims to be a kind of virtual re-creation of the globe, using satellite and other imagery, fleshed out by information contributed by users. The Street View imagery it began adding to its maps a few years ago is a result of a mind-boggling undertaking: vehicles equipped with nine-direction cameras taking 360-degree views of, basically, everything viewable from a road, anywhere. It’s the sort of project that would be laughed off as impractical if proposed by the government but is evidently doable with the spare profits churned out by search-based advertising. As a Washington Monthly article argued recently, Google “may well be the world’s most important mapmaker.”

But as is so often the case, the really interesting stuff comes not from the massive compilation of information by a giant corporation but rather from the creative projects of smaller entities that find interesting ways to mine and tweak that information. Two notable examples are MapCrunch and Globe Genie. On Globe Genie, created by Joe McMichael, an M.I.T. graduate student, you click the “teleport” button and the main window displays a Street View selected at random from whatever Google has available on whichever continent you’ve chosen. This could be a stretch of highway in rural Denmark, a corner in downtown Denver or the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. MapCrunch is much the same but lets you narrow your virtual travel to specific cities. In both cases, if you see something compelling, you can stop and look around via Street View, wandering as much as you like, checking out the pedestrians, street signs and other random imagery that has been collected.

A variant of these exploratory sites is the View From Your Window Game. You are shown a single image and have to deduce where it was made by clicking on a map, which gradually narrows your choices. It’s excruciatingly hard. If you prefer a more passive approach to Web-map entertainment, there are plenty of geo-­bloggers doing virtual exploration. A prominent example is Google Sightseeing (not affiliated with Google), which presents Google-image-illustrated travelogues of, say, the restoration of a Dresden church or murals in the Mission District of San Francisco; roundups of satellite images of notable craters; or collections of funny signs, aberrant behavior and “weirdness.” As the site asks: “Why bother seeing the world for real?”

The new cartography also benefits from the availability of other massive data streams that can be channeled into a form cross-matched on a map. The Geotaggers’ World Atlas shows where Flickr and Picasa users take the most pictures. Lookbackmaps and Historypin put user-submitted photos of historic interest onto Google maps. The BBC has an online tool called Dimensions that allows you to see, for instance, the size of the gulf oil spill overlaid on the geographic location of your choice. You can also find instructions online for how to create a Google map pinpointing foreclosures in your city.

Part of what’s different about this version of map-based enjoyment is that technology has brought it into a realm that occasionally crosses the border of voyeurism. It’s one thing to speculate about distant lands; it’s quite another to zoom in for a better look at a random pedestrian in Taipei. (Street View blurs faces and license-plate numbers.) And as the artist Jon Rafman has demonstrated with his astonishing “The Nine Eyes of Google Street View” project, which culls compelling images that the company’s roving cameras have unthinkingly captured, Street View produces images that are as unexpectedly beautiful, beguiling or disturbing as those of any traditional street photographer.

Maps have always served as visual information compendiums, often tacitly revealing some point of view or assertion about who rules the space depicted. Digital geo-tools revolve around the individual, and plenty cater explicitly to the sense that it’s your world: WeePlaces visualizes Foursquare and Gowalla check-ins on a map, and Map My Followers provides you with a map showing the locations of your Twitter followers. And although there are occasional outcries about how this iteration of documenting the world threatens our privacy, many of us seem to find it compelling just the same. Sure, it’s a new culture of constant and inescapable surveillance — but to a surprising degree, it’s one we can participate in too.

This essay was originally published in The New York Times Magazine, December 30, 2010.  

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