The Curse of Google Maps

A globe has dimension. It puts places on Earth in context. It spins.

My Daddy was a mapmaker for Magnolia Petroleum Company in Texas back in the 1940s and 50s when cartographers plotted the locations of oil and gas wells on linen or paper maps by hand. He had wonderful penmanship and he taught his daughters to read and respect maps. He always insisted maps must be neatly folded in the exact way they had been unfolded, and I usually complied. He died in 1977 well before the GPS revolution and the digitizing and cloud storing of information.

I love maps, atlases, and globes of our world. Whenever friends return from a far-flung trip, we get out our old National Geographic Atlas and look to see where they have been. They do the same when we return from a journey. Most of our friends still have atlases. When we are planning an extended trip of our own, I first refer to the old atlas admittedly out of nostalgia and then I open Google Earth and plot our trip with digital pushpins. Google Earth is no replacement for an atlas but it is an example of a useful computer tool. It has lots of detail and contour and it lets me see the larger landscape of where I am planning to go and where I have been. Travel is a narrative. Travel has context. A trip, long or short, to Kathmandu or the grocery store, entails a great deal more than moving from point A to point B.

As a rule, we keep a Rand McNally Road Atlas tucked between the console and passenger seat in our car. When we were packing for our annual trip south to Mexico in September, I glanced in the slot and mistook our DeLorme Gazetteer of Minnesota (same size, shape) for the Rand McNally. I made a big mistake of which my husband bore the brunt. I complained daily, sometimes twice and thrice, for most of the 2,800 miles. The world-shrinking Garmin and Google Maps on the cellphone stuck on the dashboard sufficed for my driver-husband, but I could not track our passage on a map on my lap. I could not put us in our transitory context. Where were we exactly in relation to the other places and landmarks—cities, towns, counties, rivers, mountains, parks, historic sites—that define the landscapes, history, and cultures we were passing through? I was anxious and adrift and I wondered, “Am I the only person who feels this way in the Age of Google Maps?”

Manhattan, Kansas, on Google Maps. Small, flat, no context. Boring.

Manhattan, Kansas, on a Rand McNally map. You can see Topeka, the state capital and where the wonderful Brown v. The Board of Education National Historic Site is located. Just north of Manhattan is Pottawatomie # 2, a state fishing lake where David, the dogs, and I spent a loving evening on September 26, 2019, looking for dragonflies and having our end-of-the day beers. To the south is the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in the Flinthills, one of the most beautiful landscapes in North America. Details. Context. Narrative. Not boring.

It is difficult to find a Rand McNally anymore. I asked in numerous gas stations and truck stops. I got blank stares (“…a what?”) or eye rolling (“Where have you been, lady?”) Finally, somewhere toward the end of the trip, in West Texas or New Mexico, at a bustling truck stop, I found a 2020 Rand McNally. It was dirt-cheap, like $7.99. I would have paid $49.99. We had only about 24 hours remaining in the U.S., but I put the map on my lap and I calmed down.

I know it is a trait of elders to balk at change and innovation. My mother, bless her earnest heart, was troubled by evolving cultural values related to courtship, virginity, marriage, divorce, and gender. My father, heart-breaking for me, took his racial biases to his grave. They both were alarmed by rock and roll. The good thing is elders die—they are relieved of the burdens of change and we the living are relieved of their intransigence.

I am still shocked having advanced to elderhood. I think I am open-minded and I work to maintain flexibility in the headwinds of change. But certain things, particularly in the intersecting realms of media and technology, are not sitting so well with me.

One change I came to resist and abhor decades before I became an elder is television, which has made millions of people fat in body and lazy in mind. TV and social media are like boxing’s one-two punch. The former set up the first jab; the latter, the second blow. Even weather reporting, which has practical and at times life-saving value, has been ruined by the Weather Channel. I get my weather from Windy, a mobile-device application that maps high- and low-pressure systems around the world in real time and has other useful functions, such as radar, storm tracking, temperature, waves, air quality, and predictive forecasting for specific locations. It shows weather in all its swirling majesty. No hype needed from Jim Cantore and his Weather Channel cohorts. The fact that Windy is my preferred weather source also proves I am not a Luddite.

The hand-held device has brought about the most fundamental behavioral change among humans in my lifetime, and I think the case could be made that the gripping of these devices is the most radical development in tool use over the roughly 65 million years of primate evolution. It doesn’t matter whether I think this change is good or bad. I have a device and I grip it frequently.

I do take issue with the hypnotic power of certain device applications and how they reshape how we see and live in the world. I take note when an application is starting to hold me hostage. I make an escape. It is not always easy.

Google Maps is an example of the fine line between an application’s practicality and its power to capture and mind-bend its users. Last November we met friends in Mexico City for Thanksgiving. I hadn’t been there in years. On past trips, I made my way around the city just fine with travel guides and maps and the help of other human beings—taxi cab drivers, bellhops, storekeepers, waiters, and strangers on the street—encounters that enriched my experience. On this trip, we all had devices and, like device monkeys we have become, we immediately defaulted to Google Maps.

I can see us now. We looked ridiculous—a congregation of gray-hairs lurching down the streets of Mexico City gawking not at every wonderful thing around us but at the devices in our cupped palms. I recall a couple of preposterous occasions where we stood in a huddle disputing what our devices were telling us. My friends and I are pretty self-aware, not hopelessly device-addicted, and veterans of the old school of travel for whom a singular joy is watching people, spaces, places, landscape, nature. We got our bearings, put our devices in our pockets (mostly), and broke out of the tiny jail cell of Google Maps.

Google Maps takes the eye hostage and robs us of peripheral vision. Google Maps makes the world small and flat and simple. It puts up a wall, at once invisible and opaque, between the user and everyone else. People who use the application to the exclusion of traditional maps are denying themselves a richer life. I think my Daddy would agree with me. And someday I will be happy to join him wherever it is that intransigent elders go.


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1 Response to The Curse of Google Maps

  1. Wanda Gamble says:

    My sister has three atlases. Two large 2018, 2019 and a smaller version. Mom kept an atlas under her sofa. She looked at it all the time. I have maps. And I have a pocket atlas by the toilet. I was very annoyed today while studying Pennsylvania, that Lebanon was missing. I wanted to place my friend. I gave my Texas map to a friend recently and couldn’t find a replacement. While in West Texas I just got a hotel room rather than wonder into the night without cell phone coverage. I have to say the map paper is very cheap. My last Texas map (cost me $5.95) tore the first time I opened it.

    I went to the annual Not Dead Yet Party at Dave Moriarty’s on Red Bluff. I sat next to a young fellow on the deck. We talked about everything. Turns out his mother is a botanist and was married to Tom Wendt before she married his dad. Dave’s parties are like that. We even had a streaker. I was afraid it was someone with dementia. The media age for the party is around 70 I’d say. I call it the geezer party. It’s the only party I attend annually where I can feel really foxy. It’s because everyone is so ancient.

    Miss you. Where are you going? What the next big trip?

    Thanks for your thoughts. I respond this way because I couldn’t navigate the password thing with the saaribampo posting site.



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