In my last article, I wrote about alternative mapping. I referred to somewhat ‘weird’ maps showing France illustrated by various wines or the London underground presented as 100 years of music. My main arguments were that these alternative maps are fun, offer new viewpoints, need to be interpreted by the user, have some kind of soul as well as constitute and make a space or a place special. This time, I will deal with another type of alternative mapping: Maps of the ‘augmented reality’ period we are currently experiencing (cf. Valentin Schipfer’s recent article). I will point out some important aspects – some of them were presented by French economics sociologist Franck Cochoy in a recent lecture titled “Exploring the commercial space with a smartphone: Curiosity, geotraceability and self-marketing” (Goethe-University Frankfurt/Main, 11 January 2012).
This time, we are talking about alternative maps with respect to digital maps users can adjust for their individual information search. One example of this service is Google Earth; though I am sure you have already used or heard of plenty of other similar map applications. What users can do with Google Earth is not only looking at places from above, but also experiencing them in a 3D visualization on the ground and/or by flying around (from one place to another). This is not really new, even though the details are becoming increasingly sophisticated.
Users can also check boxes in order to see specific landmarks, pictures, transit systems, the current traffic, 3D buildings, current weather conditions, restaurants, and even specific information provided by other companies or institutions like Greenpeace or Unicef. This is exactly the point, where I would like to underscore that the ‘traditional’ (digital) map has been altered to a fundamental degree: Google Earth shows not only one picture of a particular place, but several layers of it. While it was also possible with other digital maps before to fly around in space, the layer aspect puts the user in a different position. It is the individual who decides which layers to see or not to see. While the ‘flying around’ is a movement over given programmed information (the ‘drawn’ map), the selection of additional information to be shown for a particular place means that users are interacting with the map in a new way.
At this point, Cochoy, Callon, Latour and other researchers would apply the actor-network theory (ANT) by showing how not (only) humans are doing something with objects, but how these objects/nonhumans are acting themselves and doing something with humans. This is where a socio-technical network emerges. However, as this oversimplified notion of ANT suggests, this approach goes far beyond the scope of a blog article.
I think that a related (slightly simpler) concept can already provide important insights. It is the concept of serendipity. The term describes the discovering of something along the way while seeking something different (or simply distraction). Facebook just started to colloquialize the term by introducing its new timeline and related applications under the marketing phrase “real-time serendipity.”
If we go back to the example of Google Earth, it becomes clear that users enter into a new relation with the maps they are using. In the case of products (which Google Earth is one), users stumble across information they (might) find useful even though they were not seeking it. This is also the case if they specifically select certain boxes in Google Earth. For example, I could be interested in the current weather conditions in a specific area…well, I might discover that there is a near-by mountain whose peak seems to be above the clouds thus making it an interesting place for my next trip on a Sunday afternoon.
Through maps of this kind, people are experiencing a place differently and individually. As with the alternative maps I introduced last time, these maps are also fun, offer new viewpoints, need to be interpreted by the user, have some kind of soul as well as constitute and make a space or a place special. What is different is that the maps in this case here are not static and that users and maps are thus interacting (ANT…). Taken the concept of serendipity on step further, one can imagine that behind every digital map there are human beings providing certain information but not other. This is an argument not often shared by actor-network theorists, but it is fundamentally important if we want to understand what/who interacts with whom/what. If there is conscious human action behind nonhuman ‘things’ (what I would assume), then we have to ask what intention or motivation underlies these maps. And then, we can rethink how and how much an individual can consciously and independently use a map and interpret a particular (image of a) place.