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The Memory Map: Is it Possible to Chart All the Territory in the World?

From our winter issue, GOOD 025: The Next Big Thing

I’m in the street outside the house where we lived when I was 12 years old, but I’m also sitting on the fourth floor of my university library. The house is one in a line of near-identical two-story structures set on small, sloping lots; you can tell them apart by slight gradations in siding and shutter color, by how many cars the garages hold. Our house is grayish beige with dark-green shutters, a closed single-car garage, and an empty driveway with a sharp slope. It’s nice to be here again, to go back and remember how things used to be. It’s sometime during the afternoon because the house and the stand of trees spread behind it cast shadows that darken parts of the yard, but it’s summer, I think, it must be summer; the sun above me is a squeezed orange leaking light on the mown lawns arrayed around the court and so there’s still plenty of day left for playing, there has to be. I turn around in a full circle, though, and there are no kids outside, no people at all, just the houses and yards and parked cars.

I’m there in the street, but I’m also sitting on the fourth floor of my university library, at a low desk set at the end of two rows of floor-to-ceiling steel shelves filled with bound volumes of Life and Time and other eroding periodicals. I come up here because the fourth floor is always quiet; nobody looks at old magazines anymore because all the important ones have been digitized and databased. It’s winter and the wind is gusting in the empty parking lot outside, but up here the air is still and there are no windows except the ones open on my computer. In one of those windows, which I’ve stretched all the way to the edges of the screen, I can see the house where we lived the summer when I was 12 years old.

You haven’t been to my street but you’ve seen this, too. Google Street View is no longer exciting technology; it’s become banal, just another one of the simple digital tools we use every day. To create these maps, Google captures 360-degree panoramas of city streets and rural highways with 15-lens video-camera systems mounted on top of cars, GPS units that coordinate those images with the locations at which they were taken, and lasers that measure the distance of buildings from the road, allowing for accurate representations of depth. The images are then processed and projected into a 3-D environment built inside your browser window so that you can move back and forth and left and right, looking freely in any direction as you traverse the virtual world.

The Street View service, which is part of both the Google Maps and Google Earth applications, launched in 2007 in five American cities but has quickly stretched to cover most of North America and Western Europe; a meta-map on the Street View website marks expansions into all seven continents, including Antarctica. In recent months, Google has begun capturing territory that, for legal or logistical reasons, was previously considered unmappable. Street View cameras are, as we speak, roving through the streets of Tel Aviv and traveling on a raft down the Amazon River.

Google isn’t just expanding into wilderness; it’s also begun to map the geography of interior spaces, to move in from streets and avenues to galleries and dining rooms. As the days pass, the map grows larger and larger. A press release notes that there are an estimated 50 million miles of paved roads in the world, and though mapping them all “seemed outlandish at first,” the Street View team says its research has since shown it to be “within reach of an organized effort at an affordable scale.”

This is an old idea. In 1946, Jorge Luis Borges published a short story titled “On Exactitude in Science,” which describes an imaginary country where cartography has advanced to such a degree that a map was created that was the exact same size as the land it mapped and “coincided point for point with it.” The story is a dramatization of the philosophical concept of map-territory relation, which involves the connection between representations and the things they represent.

Borges’ stories are fantastical, but it’s not hard to make comparisons between the scale of his fictions and the projects Google is building in the real world. The Google Books project, which aspires to digitize every book in the world, is reminiscent of Borges’ library of Babel (in October, Google released a 3-D “infinite digital bookcase” as an interface for the mass of texts). The growing scope of Street View mirrors the map in “On Exactitude in Science,” and in one of his best known stories, Borges describes “a garden of forking paths,” an infinite labyrinth that many see as a premonition of the hypertextual web through which we use Google’s search engine to find our way.

Google is fast becoming a map for all of reality. Its mission statement is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”; in other words, to do multimedia digital cartography on a global scale. At present, interfaces made by Google organize the social world (Mail, Plus), the intellectual world (Books, Scholar, News), and the visual world (YouTube, Picasa); it only makes sense that it’s now attempting to capture the physical world, too. “We’re trying to create a virtual mirror of the world at all times,” Google’s head of geographic and local services, Marissa Mayer, said last year. In 1931, the philosopher Alfred Korzybski stated that “the map is not the territory,” arguing that while people often confuse representations of reality with the things they depict, we must always remember that the two are distinct. The continued expansion of Google into our mental and physical worlds raises an important question, though; whether, as its resolution deepens, the map is beginning to overtake the territory, and, if so, what might be lost in the process.

We lived on that street for more than three years. No matter how hard I rev the hard drive of my mind, though, now I only see summer, the season that seems to be captured in the map. I can remember a Christmas morning, my brother coming in and waking me up in rumpled pajamas, but that was inside the house, not outside. I try to look up into my bedroom window from the street, to find that morning, but a tree blocks my view. The more I zoom in, the more the image blurs and smudges, the more it fragments, the less it tells me. When the digital compression of an image causes visible distortions, those distortions are called artifacts, the same name we give ancient things found buried in the ground.

* * *

This morning, before I went back to my street and the summer I was 12 years old, I visited Versailles. As part of the Google Art Project, the company’s first experiment in interior mapping, Google used a high-definition panoramic camera mounted on a small trolley to capture the interiors of 17 famous art museums, including MoMA, the Rijksmuseum, and the Uffizi. I’ve never been to Versailles, so I clicked in through the main page and was transported there in the same time it takes for my Gmail inbox to load. I strolled through the grand apartments and drawing rooms of the royal court and stared up at the trompe l’oeil ceilings and rococo gold fixtures. I got close enough for my nose to touch 400-year-old oil paintings.

I was bored. Virtual tourism of this sort has been hailed by some users as an alternative to travel, a way to get the feel of a place without actually making it there. In my experience, though, it doesn’t work for visiting, only revisiting. There’s not enough sensory detail in the mapped images to lose yourself in them unless you can overlay their projections with the texture of your own memories. My childhood house has none of the grandeur of the court of Versailles, but because I remember the way the air smelled when the tide was low in the bay beyond the woods, how heat felt on my forehead early in the morning waiting for everyone to come out and play, it moves me more, it takes me back.

This May, Google launched Business Photos, its second attempt to create immersive maps of interior spaces. Small businesses in select cities around the world can now apply through Google’s website to have a photographer come and capture panoramas of their aisles and entryways; when the images are uploaded to Maps, Street View users are able to walk through the front door of the business and have a look around inside, the same way they do in the real world.

The Business Photos FAQ advises business owners who are concerned about whether they should arrange things to be neat and clean that the photos should “show customers what to expect to see if they visited your business on a normal day.” That is, normal but empty of people and personalities. There are no individuals on Google Earth, only bodies moving through space; in response to privacy concerns, engineers developed an algorithm to search through the terabytes of captured images for human faces and blur them until they’re unrecognizable.

* * *

The summer I was 12 years old, I would tear through the sloping streets of the neighborhood on my Rollerblades. Once, launching out of our open garage to pick up speed, I caught the tip of my front wheel on the edge of the driveway and slammed into the pavement, near the place where I’m standing in the map now. I had to get three stitches in my knee and bandages on my hands. The doctor at the walk-in clinic said it was a good thing I had been wearing a helmet, that I should always wear one because otherwise I might damage my brain. He knocked on my forehead with his knuckles. Look out for that thing, he said, because without it, you wouldn’t be you.

A few years before Google launched its street-level mapping service, scientists assembled the first map of the human cerebral cortex, the place where our memories are stored. To model this part of the brain was a challenge; if unwrapped and stretched out like a map, the average cerebral cortex would be two-and-a-half square feet. Instead of a traditional flat projection, the project used a 3-D computer model to represent the complex shape of the brain. Researchers can turn the cortex around in a full circle and zoom in and out to see certain parts in greater detail. A scientist responsible for the projection compared this attempt to represent brain geography to the attempts of 17th-century cartographers to capture the sprawling curves of the Earth.

“The Internet has become a primary form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside ourselves,” writes Betsy Sparrow, a psychologist at Columbia University, in a paper published earlier this year in Science. Sparrow argues, based on a series of experiments with human subjects, that if we think data will be available on the internet, we feel freer to forget it. Instead of remembering information, we remember how to find it. In the age of the search engine, the contents of our brains are becoming more abstract, like maps, swept clean of the crumbs of detail that make up the world.

Google, more than any other company today, is invested in accelerating this evolution. Its pilot computer project, the Chromebook, does away with the notion of local storage almost entirely; when you use it, you can’t hold on to your data, even though the data, in some sense, is what makes you who you are. You have to, instead, connect to Google’s servers and retrieve the data you want and then, when you’re done, send it back to the cloud so that Google can hold on to it until you need to access it again.

* * *

The summer I was 12 years old, we annotated the asphalt with fat slabs of bucket chalk; we made circles and drew lines and wrote our names in cursive; we sketched arrows pointing to buried treasure, to home bases, to hiding places. On so many days that summer, we played four-square in a grid we drew in the center of the street. Today, Foursquare is a mobile app that uses maps to tell other people in your world where you are, to help them find you, but that summer, it felt like all the people in our world were inside the squares of the grid, that there was nowhere else to be.

Google’s competitor for Foursquare is a service called Latitude, named for the vast imaginary lines we use to orient ourselves on Earth. The ultimate goal for all of Google’s interwoven services is to index as many facets of reality as possible in what the science-fiction writer Cory Doctorow has half-jokingly called “the Googleverse.” Privacy advocates express concerns over the company’s dominance in the digital sphere; in 2007, European Union officials questioned Google’s policy of keeping individual users’ search histories for two years (originally, the cookies were set to capture data until 2038) and, in 2010, Google acknowledged that its Street View cars had inadvertently been scraping hundreds of gigabytes of data from private wireless networks, an announcement that has prompted government regulation and possible legal action in a number of countries.

I’m not worried about my privacy, though; I’m worried that no matter what information I feed Google, its services won’t be enough to contain all my thoughts and feelings, that its maps will blunt my experience of the world around me. Street View is travel without the smog and the din and the taste of pork dumplings from the cart in the alley. Gchat, which I use constantly, is talking without hand gestures and vocal inflections, without seeing the way your lover smiles at you when you tell a joke.

As the technology advances, perhaps these interfaces will improve, but perhaps they’ll only further abstract our connection to reality. Mayer said in late 2010 that Google is working on “contextual discovery,” or “search without search,” which involves analyzing your usage history and your location to tell you what you want to know before you decide you want to know it. Apps like Foursquare and Latitude have been touted as ways of allowing us to get more out of our world, but there’s the possibility that they will, instead, limit our views, that we’ll be so busy looking at the maps on our devices that we won’t see the territory they cover, the leaves turning and trees growing, the balls bouncing past as children play games in the street. In Borges’ “On Exactitude in Science,” the perfect map of the empire is found by later generations to be useless and is left to decompose in the sun of the western deserts, its “Tattered Ruins ... inhabited by Animals and Beggars.”

The summer I was 12 years old, we made circles and drew lines and arrows, we marked the edges of our territory with chalk and played four-square in the grid. The ball would bounce out and land in the yard, in a bush or a flowerbed, and we would all run to grab it, fighting to be the one to get there first. I’m in the map now, in the summer, and I turn all around, trying to find the ball again, to hold it and feel its pebbled texture. I see the houses and I see the street and I see the arrows and lines arranging my path, backward and forward, but I don’t see the ball, not anywhere. I turn around again, I zoom in on the grass, on the ground, trying to get closer, but it’s no use, it’s not there. And the closer I get, the further I go, the more the image blurs, smudges, distorts, fills with artifacts.

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