Don’t Worry: I’ve Got Google Maps!

I pass by someone on the street and catch a quick glimpse of their phone screen. I see the familiar tan background, the finicky blue line and arrow that seems to always point the wrong direction. A tiny, urbanistically-superior voice in the back of my head mutters, ‘Tourist.’

Not everyone has smart phones, but Google Maps and other GPS-enabled systems have become rather ubiquitous tools for navigating new places. Before I left the United States for Iceland and Scotland, I trolled Google Maps, saving locations and looking up directions to avoid getting lost upon arrival. I also virtually walked the streets of Reykjavik and Edinburgh, familiarizing myself with the street names and different landmarks, so that I would not be wholly dependent on my phone when I arrived. Part of my motivation for doing this was clear: I did not want to be what I perceived as obviously a tourist and thus inherently out of place.

Perhaps this is an unfair interpretation of what it is to be a tourist (I have been doing a lot of thinking about tourism lately), but the fact remains that we use maps to help us navigate places with which we are unfamiliar and sometimes even those we know very well. As soon as I know where a new place is, I do all I can to not need my phone to help me get there: I memorize landmarks, remember street names, and create in my head a map of the overall direction and location. The more I walk the path created, the less I need to rely on something like Google Maps because I have this mental map that I project and read in the urban landscape around me.

In his book Eccentric Spaces, Robert Harbison (1977) describes these mental maps as ‘the mind’s miniatures’ (124), ways for us to understand and navigate space in bite-size, digestible pieces. They are ways for us to live coherently in everyday spaces, locate the mundane and extraordinary, reminisce on past vacations and travels, and connect the disparate ‘here’s to the ‘there’s. As Harbison says, ‘studying a map can be like reading a journal of an experience’ (125).

Maps in this respect are fascinating because they grant the user the privilege of seeing ‘here’ and ‘there’ simultaneously. Imagine laying a paper map flat out on a table and surveying over its entirety; you are afforded an omniscient view of this location, seeing all of the information as a whole and from a relatively distant, high perspective. Yet, as soon as you drop your finger onto a particular point, random or otherwise, you are able to see everything on the map as it relates to that created point. Suddenly everything exists in relation to where you ‘are’ at the moment. This is most like how we experience our mind maps in reality. In the ‘real’ world, we never view anything from everywhere; our ‘here’ inextricably determines our ‘there’ and vice versa. Harbison argues that when we imagine places, we tend to view them from the same angle whether we’re aware of it or not (124). Our vantage point depends on multiple factors, such as how often we frequent the space or the mundane or extraordinary significance of it. For example, there is a Tesco Express near my flat in Edinburgh – when I picture it in my head, I almost always ‘go’ to it from either my flat – exit on Nicolson Street, cross the road, turn left, it’s on my right – or the gym – come up Drummond Street, turn right, it’s on my right. It exists in my head as a specific point fixed in place by the fixedness of other specific points. Harbison’s argument is that we situate things in ways unique to our experience of spaces, not necessarily adhering to traditional means of location, like the cardinal compass.

We require specificity when we are both reading and creating maps. Maps without names and references are as ‘irksome and baffling as faces without features’ (Harbison 125), because they provide a grand context in which we cannot find our tiny position. We need to have names of places so we can know which places are worth visiting; for our mental maps, those spaces given names are the ones worth remembering. I know where Buccleuch Church is because I go there every Wednesday morning for a prayer breakfast, and though I recognize the restaurants, pubs, and shops I pass, I do not have any specific recollection of what they are (I know one is a pub, something to do with dogs, and the restaurant on the corner is always prepping for the day as I pass in the early morning). For cartographers laying down complicated topographies onto an accessible depiction of the land, they must pick and choose what they believe will most benefit the user. A map of Glyndwr’s Way (a 135-mile walking trail in Wales) neglects those cities and roads irrelevant to the trail-walker and instead includes random small farms and villages along the path pertinent to the walker but useless for, say, an automobile driver. I have a friend who travels via train regularly from Bradford to Leeds just to sit and read in coffee shops; she can give a comprehensive digest of Leeds cafes, but if you ask her about local clubs, you’re out of luck. We require specificity that is individual and pertinent to our experience of the spaces we occupy.

Of course, what happens when, not specificity, but wandering and becoming ‘lost’ in the city is your goal? Then the particulars are blurred and we focus on the disjointedness of that around us. Maps are fascinating because of all the little bits and pieces, the tiny parts that no one really knows are there – the unwritten is just as captivating as the written. What exists between the lines is sometimes what we wish to read, especially when we want to see the city as an organic, mysterious setting in which we are explorers. Harbison says that we enjoy this idea of engaging in the natural side of the city, believing it to be something beyond full comprehension or ‘correct’ interpretation (131). However, as he admits, even when we are lost, we rarely ever wish to be fully and completely disoriented. Not knowing where you are is different from having no sense of direction, though one can certainly feed into the other. As we wander, we constantly call to mind where we have been in relation to where we are now; being lost can only be fully effective if there is an element of knowing, even if it is simply a matter of knowing where we are not.

And no matter how much we wish to be ‘lost’ in the chaotic rhythms of the urban landscape, the answer to the question ‘Are you lost?’ is almost always an instinctual and resounding ‘No!’ What is it in us that makes us ashamed to not know places yet compulsively desire to experience new places? We want to be where we are not, to see that which we’ve not seen before, yet retain an air of spatial foreknowledge and local belonging. Perhaps that is why I study Google Maps as hard as I can before stepping out my door: the presence of a physical map indicates to me that my mental map is incomplete and the best way to fill out my mental miniature is by stepping into the life-size grandeur of the city.

Of course, maps are constantly being edited. The mental plays off the physical and vice versa. It’s really quite a wonder that Google can keep up.

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