05.09.16

by DAVID RUDIN@DavidSRudin

If an object does not exist on a map, does it exist at all? Do you? You can see it with your own two eyes, and yet it is exists outside your world.

In the early days of mapping, when much of the world was unknown, such discoveries simply expanded the known universe. There was a world beyond maps. But now that we go through life with the reasonably well-founded belief that maps can accurately capture the intricacies of our world, the process of mapping glitches raises a whole new series of problems.

When this happens in a game, it’s almost funny. In Halo 3 (2007), for instance, a Monkey Man existed outside a level map. The only way to reach it was to die and be reborn in a convenient locale. It was a glitch, to be sure, but it was hardly consequential. Indeed, these sorts of videogame mapping glitches populate obscure forums as weird collectibles in their own rights; mapping failures to be discovered (and, in some cases, remedied) by intrepid explorers.

The Halo 3 glitch was not all that dissimilar from the first famous internet mapping glitch. In the early days of Google Maps, if you asked for driving directions from an East Coast city to London, you were directed a specific pier, and then told to drive across the ocean. For those who were in on the joke, it was a delightful little Easter egg. For those who weren’t… well, who knows? Here’s hoping they didn’t take it too seriously.

Maps are more serious now. Perhaps they always were, and the public is just catching up. Google no longer tells you to drive into the sea, but as Justin O’Beirne pointed out in a recent essay about the evolution of the company’s mapping product, “the number of roads shown has actually increased.” He further noted that the placement of text in relation to labels had been standardized and fewer cities were displayed. This, one supposes, is what adulthood looks like.

INFRASTRUCTURE WOULD EVENTUALLY GRIND TO A HALT

We are now very much in the adulthood of geographic data. Just turn on a new phone and watch it be inundated by apps’ demands to use your location, some of which make more obvious sense than others. These uses of GPS, it should be noted, are but the tip of the iceberg. “There are now around seven G.P.S. receivers on this planet for every ten people,” Greg Milner, the author ofPinpoint: How GPS Is Changing Technology, Culture, and Our Minds, noted last week in The New Yorker. “Estimates of the system’s economic value often run into the trillions of dollars.”

As with all systems that are this valuable, the real questions involve what would happen in the event of a failure. In the event of a breakdown, Milner notes:

The Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency recently determined that, within thirty seconds of a catastrophic G.P.S. shutdown, a position reading would have a margin of error the size of Washington, D.C. After an hour, it would be Montana-sized. Drivers might miss their freeway exits, but planes would also be grounded, ships would drift off course, commuter-rail systems would be tied up, and millions of freight-train cars with G.P.S. beacons would disappear from the map.

It’s hard to know exactly what to make of these warnings. As the pilot-cum-journalist William Langewiesche once noted in The Atlantic: “Air-traffic control’s main function is to provide for the efficient flow of traffic, and to allow for the efficient use of limited runway space—in other words, not primarily to keep people alive but to keep them moving.” Planes, in other words, would be able to coordinate and land, but they wouldn’t take back off.

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