Thursday, October 04, 2012

Why we should celebrate the Apple Maps fiasco

When I heard about the outcry over Apple's new Maps application, I thought that the company must have pinched one or two ideas from my mate Paul Janman.

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.

Just like authors, cartographers have to select details they consider relevant out of an infinitely complex reality. And just like writers, cartographers appeal to the imaginations of readers. The grey line signifying a street or the green square of a park or the double square symbolising a pa will conjure different images and emotions in different readers.

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.
Maps did not always aim at an impossible objectivity. In 1793 a Nga Puhi chief named Tuki Tahua was asked to make a map of Aotearoa. Tahua's drawing, which highlights the Hokianga, makes the distant Te Wai Pounamu into a mere appendage to Ta Ika a Maui, and traces the flight path that the souls of the dead take on their way north to Hawai'iki, is an unashamed expression of his cosmology and experiences. Tahua's map might remind us, in its subjectivism, of those medieval Christian maps which showed Jerusalem at the exact centre of the world.

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.

In the twenty-first century millions of workers in the West have at least partially internalised the Taylorist attitude to space promoted by many of their employers. They have come to break the surface of the earth into finite regular units, and have gotten into the habit of calculating the distance and time involved in even short journeys. The mania for Apple and Google Maps applications, with their inane voices offering endless advice about shortest possible routes, reflects the success of the new attitude to space.

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]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

2:51 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

'A famous study of London taxi drivers, conducted in the late 1990s, found that an area of the cabbies' hippocampi was much larger than normal. The hippocampus is thought to be the place where we store maps of our surroundings. It plays a crucial role in our ability to keep track of where we are and to get from one place to another. As the taxi drivers built their mental maps of London's incredibly complex road network, the study indicated, their hippocampi expanded, and their navigational skills strengthened.

Eleanor Maguire, the neuroscientist who led the study, fears that if the cabbies adopt satellite navigation, their hippocampi will shrink, and they'll lose much of their remarkable navigational sense. "We very much hope they don't start using it," she told a reporter for Britain's Independent newspaper.

All of us who rely heavily on computer maps and GPS devices are exercising our innate navigational skills less frequently and less intensively. As a result, those skills are probably decaying. And if our kids rely on computer maps from a young age, they may never establish those skills in the first place. When we upgraded from atlases to gizmos, we made our lives easier. But we lost something, too.

Just like the cabbies, we may be fated to experience a dwindling in the size and functionality of the part of the hippocampus devoted to representing space. As that happens, we'll begin to lose touch with the physical world that surrounds us. And in turn, we'll become even more dependent on our computers to shepherd us around. We'll turn into modern-day Hansels and Gretels, lost without our digital trail of crumbs.

But here's the really scary part. In addition to stockpiling mental maps, the hippocampus plays an essential role in creating and storing memories. Some studies have found, in fact, that a shrinking hippocampus is a risk factor for Alzheimer's disease.'

2:53 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

'Nick: I don’t think anyone is “born digital” (at least not yet). We’re all born with human bodies and human minds, and those bodies and minds are influenced in similar ways by the ways we use them and the environment in which we use them. I’ve never subscribed to the fear that people wouldn’t be able to figure out how to navigate online information. People are generally pretty good at learning how to use new media, to separate the wheat from the chaff—and that goes for older people as well as younger ones. I’m 52, and I don’t take anything I find online at face value, either. What concerns me is the mode of thinking that the online world encourages, with its emphasis on speed, multitasking, skimming, and scanning. The web provides little encouragement or opportunity for quieter, more attentive ways of thinking, such as contemplation, reflection, introspection. Those ways of thinking used to be considered the essence of the human intellect. Now they’re seen as dispensable.

PIL: Let’s switch gears. Do you think a backlash might occur, let’s say, against texting or using Google? Just as young people in the 1960s rejected many of the values and technology (e.g., television) with which they had been raised during the 1950s, could there be a digital backlash brewing against today’s digital life, or are we too hooked? What do you think the consequences be of a large part of the population rebelling, unhooking, and choosing to go off the grid? Is a modern day backlash a possibility?

Nick: It’s not just a possibility. It’s happening. As the Internet has come to dominate mainstream culture, a counterculture has begun to emerge that seeks ways to temper the influence of digital media—to celebrate the disconnected life—and I assume that young people will be at the forefront of this counterculture. Countercultural movements are always youth movements. So far, the anti-Net backlash is very small, a tiny eddy in the broader cultural current. I hope it grows into something larger and more visible, but that’s hard to predict with any certainty. I’m not hugely optimistic. What the Net’s made clear is that people crave distractions.'

3:26 am  
Blogger skalusanini said...

Excellent article. I am very keen to see this documentary on Great South Road. I guess you'll let us know when it's out.

6:04 am  
Anonymous Vivienne said...

I always like the trails that aren't shown on maps, the desire paths that are shortcuts, eroded by constant footfalls of animals and humans.

9:16 am  
Anonymous conrad tups said...

Apple should make psychogeographic maps and integrate subjectivity into their technology

9:24 am  
Anonymous Karl Marx said...


from The Grundrisse (pp. 690-692)

In no way does the machine appear as the individual worker's means of labour. Its distinguishing characteristic is not in the least, as with the means of labour, to transmit the worker's activity to the object; this activity, rather, is posited in such a way that it merely transmits the machine's work, the machine's action, on to the raw material -- supervises it and guards against interruptions.

Not as with the instrument, which the worker animates and makes into his organ with his skill and strength, and whose handling therefore depends on his virtuosity. Rather, it is the machine which possesses skill and strength in place of the worker, is itself the virtuoso, with a soul of its own in the mechanical laws acting through it; and it consumes coal, oil etc. (matières instrumentales), just as the worker consumes food, to keep up its perpetual motion. The worker's activity, reduced to a mere abstraction of activity, is determined and regulated on all sides by the movement of the machinery, and not the opposite.

The science which compels the inanimate limbs of the machinery, by their construction, to act purposefully, as an automaton, does not exist in the worker's consciousness, but rather acts upon him through the machine as an alien power, as the power of the machine itself.

9:33 am  
Anonymous Official Anon said...

Asking modern homosapiens not to use their smartphones is unfair considering the connection they have developed to this instrument.

It is like asking ancient man to do without flint.

Actually a sizeable number of Americans are addicted to their phones. So asking them to just junk this essential technology is kinda cruel. You would not ask a heroin addict to go cold turkey.

9:42 am  
Blogger Richard said...

"Taylorisation", it should be noted, is not my invention, I have never been "taylored" (I simply don't fit anything) I confess invented all the Richards, and none of them agree with each other but they agree that the world is unmapable.

Sometimes when I go to my "favorites" [sic] I click on Maps and am puzzled when Google maps comes up - and it is always centred in the United States of America which everyone must remember is The Centre, ooops, I mean Center, of the Universe. CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE. New Zealand is just a tin of shit in comparison - REMEMBER THAT ALL YOU KIWI LOSERS.

Of course, "Reading the Maps" is the title of Kendrick Smithyman's great poem: which is of course about maps and (presumably) space and time and consciousness and so on.

Can anyone explain again to me the term "simulacrum" more or less as Borges or Baudrillard et al meant it?
One of the imaginative ideas was the concept of a map as big as the thing it was depicting.

12:15 pm  
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1:31 pm  
Anonymous Apple Maps said...

This is what i am looking for. Apple has launched new map service called Apple Maps. Because of its lack of local transit recommendations using Google Maps is better compared to Apple Maps and even it is more comprehensive.

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