Why we should celebrate the Apple Maps fiasco
When he hasn't been jaunting about the country to promote his movie Tongan Ark, Paul has been working on a chaotic interactive map of Auckland's Great South Road which mixes up the details of today and the landmarks of the 1860s, when Pakeha colonists made a route through rough country so that they could send troops and settlers into the Maori-controlled Waikato Kingdom.
"You'll be the first person to use my map app" Paul warned me recently. "And I'll be filming you. You'll be stumbling round looking for a fort or for some pub that burned down a hundred years ago and you'll walk into a brick wall or a burger joint in Otahuhu. You'll be totally disoriented! It'll be funny."
Apple's map application, which moved whole cities hundreds of kilometres and dropped airports into the sea, sounded eerily like Paul's handiwork. But a series of grovelling statements from Apple bosses make it clear that the company hasn't suddenly gone surrealist, and that Apple Maps is seen as a disaster.
Commentators have advanced two different explanations for Apple's woes. Some have claimed that the software used in the map application is substandard; others have pointed the finger at the cartographic companies which supplied Apple with its information, claiming that they lack enough satellite-based data and don't value crowdsourcing as a form of research.
But there is a more fundamental reason for the failure of Apple maps. Any attempt to create an exhaustive, objective map of the world, together with interactive features which guide users through city centres or tropical forests, will inevitably fail, because map reading is, by its very nature, a partly subjective activity.
Reading a map is like reading a book. Even the longest and most careful work of non-fiction - think of Braudel's massive, murmurous history of the Mediterranean, or Gibbon's six-volume study of the decline and fall of Rome - is inevitably a selection of details intended to illustrate a subject, rather than an exhaustive treatment of that subject. An author can only pluck a few of the details she considers important out of the limitless complexity of reality. And, because she works with words, an author has to rely on readers to create their own versions of what she describes in their imaginations. The act of reading a book is ineluctably subjective.
Before it was denounced by its creators, Apple Maps was criticised by many users who felt that it ignored their particular vision of the world and their particular needs. Users of public transport, for example, were angered to find that Apple hadn't bothered to consider trains and buses when it estimated the fastest way of travelling across this or that city. Apple boasted that its map application would help customers get the most out of the spaces they inhabit, but no programme could hope to cater to the diverse ways we imagine and use our world. When I lived near a major Auckland park, I became fascinated with the different trajectories that different people took across the space. A cyclist seeking a scenic route to work; a pensioner in a mobility scooter anxious to reach the mall on the far side of the pines without stalling or being mugged; an anarcho-primitivist foraging for mushrooms and edible wildflowers; a teenage couple seeking a quiet spot under an obscure tree: all followed different routes through the park, faithful to maps they drew in their heads.
The advent of hot air balloons and theodolites in the eighteenth century helped make cartography a more scientific discipline. The increased objectivity of modern maps emboldened disciplines like geology and geography, and massively increased our knowledge of the world, though it also made empire-building and warmongering easier.
In recent decades mapping has become a mania for many big Western businesses. Maps have become obsessively detailed, as satellites are put to work depicting and delineating even very remote pieces of the world. We can relate this phenomenon to certain long-running problems of capitalism.
Desperate to restore profit levels after the long postwar boom petered out in the seventies, business has for decades now being trying to squeeze more out of workers by managing their time and space in ever more intensive ways. In many offices as well as factories, the day is broken down into tiny units of half an hour or less, and workers are urged to commit this or that amount of labour to this or that portion of time. In much the same way, many companies seek to increase productivity by minutely delineating and tightly organising space. Employees of large trucking companies are often equipped with special map applications which divide their routes into series of short stages, each of which is correlated with a travel time. In the twenty-first century, space is being Taylorised.
In his essay 'Time, Work-discipline and Industrial Capitalism', EP Thompson famously showed how nineteenth century workers in the West gradually internalised the regularity of industrial life, which was symbolised by the clock. The Germans, who were condemned as idlers early in the nineteenth century, came to epitomise punctuality and efficiency within a few decades. And yet EP Thompson would not deny that the demands of the clock and the consciousness of workers could collide, even in well-oiled industrial societies. The struggle for the forty hour week was one example of an attempt to wrest some control of time from the bosses.
And yet not even the most devout devotee of Google or Apple Maps can avoid thinking about space in partly subjective terms. None of us can live permanently in a world of square grids and estimated travel times, just as none of us can be quite as regular as a clock.
Accounts of the weeks before the disastrous debut of Apple Maps suggest that many at the company were aware that something was wrong. Instead of recognising the impossibility of making a truly objective and exhaustive map, though, the technicians at Apple worked harder and harder at their quixotic task. As they pulled together more and more information from more and more sources, their map became increasingly contradictory, and their software began to creak.
Apple's angry customers should treat the collapse of the company's foray into map-making as a liberation, not a disaster. They should put away their i phones, open their front doors, take a walk or a drive, and enjoy not having a tinny electronic voice order them about.
[Posted by Maps/Scott]