the world is flattened

‘This is San Francisco:’

Sf map close

‘No, this is San Francisco–’

Sf earth close

‘No. This is San Francisco.’

One mark of great cities is verticality, a tangible z-axis. Rome was built on seven hills, Athens grew in the shadow of one big eff-off one. Great cathedrals set humans and human-sized dwellings in their medieval place; skyscrapers emulate them with new models of aspiration. The arteries of Edinburgh’s Old Town are criss-crossed with steep, narrow alleys and curved descents that wrap level upon level; the terraces of Newcastle’s Grey Street funnel you down into a paved delta of streets and passageways and staircases that meet the banks of the Tyne, while granite and girders span the river from high above.

Maps set preconceptions and reinforce misconceptions: these can be challenged by better maps, but perhaps are only unlearned through direct experience of the spaces they portray. Someone who visits San Francisco as more than a tourist will learn the true extent of the city west of Divisadero, and a frequent traveller in London will eventually overlay the Tube map with a personalised A-Z and a set of shortcuts, but the equatorial compression of Mercator (perpetuated in most online maps) is harder to dispel for those of us who live above the tropics.

In Europe and North America, we’ve had nearly twenty years’ exposure to online mapping; over the last decade, it’s moved into our pockets, and that familiarity impresses upon us a rendering of the world — usually courtesy of Google, and if not, heavily influenced by its example — that reflects a set of design choices, and projects a set of priorities.

These are now your defaults: the abstract pastel-hued plane of the road atlas, or the foreshortened overhead view of the satellite.[1] Terrain becomes a distraction, retained mainly to ornament empty spaces: after all, cars are very good at ironing out gradients.

What other options are provided to us? Scott Forstall’s last hoorah with Apple was the demo-friendly flyover mode, emulating the lifestyle of São Paulo’s rich high-rise dwellers who commute and socialise by helicopter taxi because they’ve given up on the streets. (Verticality works both ways.) Even at ground-level, there are subtle distortions: Google Street View is actually Google Road View, a drive-by snapshot from places where no observers could stand without risking their lives, and in which pedestrian-only public spaces are usually off-limits. Despite all of his iconic sprightliness, Mr Pegman sits in the passenger seat.

One more example: the historic heart of the city of Durham (the one in the north of England, not North Carolina) is perched atop a hill and wrapped in a loop of the River Wear. On the Google Maps default view, it’s flat and empty; the OpenStreetMap version is far busier, perhaps even cluttered, but at least it gives a sense of how the castle and cathedral anchor the place.[2]

Durham GMaps

Durham OSM


I still remember my first geography lesson from nearly 30 years ago, marking contours from the Ordnance Survey 1:25,000 maps onto strips of paper and using them to trace profiles of the landscape. It wasn’t long before I could skip that step and read those lines to conjure up the shape of hills and valleys or the elevation of cities.

In online maps, topography largely steps back in favour of a survey that glides smoothly over the land and parses it first, second and third in terms of route-planning and passing-through. It’s a shift of emphasis as radical as John Ogilby’s linear portrayal of the main roads of England and Wales in 1675, which ‘marked the transition from route, a direction of travel between known points, to road, a physical feature in the landscape’ and asserted a vision of the nation as a coherent and connected economic entity. Perhaps Google’s cartography really is the gradual creation of a navigation system for its driverless cars; perhaps it reflects the low-rise, low-density car-centric landscape in which it is currently created.[3] Perhaps it’s simply that most commercial online maps are built for limited purpose just as much as the Tube map or the A-Z or the dashboard GPS, and our fault that their ubiquity makes it easy to forget those limitations.

Why does this matter? There’s the sentimental view that the metonymy of mapmaking, for all that it inevitably leaves out, has always confronted the challenge of verticality, both in dense urban environments and sparsely-populated spaces. (The United States, perhaps uniquely, binds part of its myth of origin to mountain-climbing cartographers.) If we grow too accustomed to maps that flatten the earth, whether to simplify our long journeys or because that is how we appear to the orbiting eye, we run the risk of treating the z-axis as mere decoration in those places where it is most present and potent.

[1] Or drone.

[2] Bing is even weirder, collapsing the Wear’s meander to a pixel-thin blue line.

[3] ‘Growing up, directions were simple—in my hometown of Lawrence, Kansas, the roads conveniently run north to south and east to west (and there’s only one hill to block the view). For more than a decade, my team and I have been working to make it just as easy for you to see the world and get where you’re going.’ — Google Maps VP Bryan McClendon, in an email on March 3rd announcing that the new map UI is officially out of beta.

revisiting the distant now

Those great concerts that stay with you, the ones that become part of who you are, resurface in fragments scattered across the senses: a single chord, a snapshot of the stage committed to memory with a blink, a whiff of dry ice as it hits the back of your throat, and above all the thrum in your chest when you leave the venue, look back and think to yourself: damn, that was a night.

You don’t expect to get that rush from a tech conference.

This month was the tenth anniversary of Emerging Tech 2004. We had a sense it was special at the time, but hindsight makes it increasingly obvious how significant it was, to be ranked alongside the blogging-era SxSW Interactive, back when most of the attendees could fit into Bruce Sterling’s house, as opposed to spilling over into Oklahoma. Except this one I was lucky enough to attend.

For context: after the dot-com bubble burst, as imaginary money vanished and real money got stuffed in mattresses, there was a retrenchment: in the UK and Europe, academia and quasi-academic institutions like the BBC served as a kind of safe harbour where it was possible to make a living and produce innovative tech without worrying about burn rates and coming in one day to find the Aerons repossessed, not least because the BBC didn’t do Aerons. Too much of that work foundered for other reasons, but that’s another story, and not mine. In North America, the stepping-back and reckoning took place out of the commercial glare, as blogging took hold and people began building creative extensions upon the structures that reinforced its organic connectedness. By 2004, the war in Iraq also impinged upon things, and the military presence at ETech took many by surprise; the awkward segue from Roomba to PackBot feels like an early hint of the era of the drone. These days we have a clearer, if gloomier sense of how innovation can be repurposed in both directions.

The highlight that everyone remembers was the launch of Flickr, one of the first of its kind and the first to go big; it now exists more as a peg on which to hang internet reckons than a place to share photographs, which is why I’ll skip it except to say that Ludicorp’s talk on ‘transcendent interactions’ feels especially poignant having seen Glitch arrive and say goodnight. Eventually Stewart and Cal and Eric and their team will build that damn game and make it last, even if it takes another few iterations of spinning off really nice non-gamey things for cash and prizes.

[A late update: it was amiss of me to neglect Findery, which sustains the whimsical, playful sensibility of GNE by inscribing memories on maps; I don't give it enough attention, perhaps because I don't get out enough.]

It also saw the unveiling of Life Hacks, which like too many things on the internet evolved into a morass of wrongheaded obsession, gear-driven oneupmanship and competing bullshit orthodoxies that drove its most prominent advocates to torch and flee the place. To this day, Danny denies being a stealth agent for the stationery industry.

But there are other things I take away from those few days, as both treasured memories and continual reference points for how I approach the web today. Here are a few:

danah boyd, ‘Revenge of the User’ (summary)
danah now has a decade of hugely impressive work, grounded in sleeves-rolled-up research and guided by a deep understanding of social theory (buy her book, or at very least, read it) but this early talk doesn’t feel dated at all: it lays out the gaps between social structures and ones engineered online to accommodate them, the difficulty of handling asymmetrical relationships, and the urge to expand online social networks up to the point where they become brittle. It anticipates the way in which engineering decisions have social consequences, well ahead of the emergence of MySpace or Facebook or Google+. ‘The technology will not solve the social, but each design decision made in the technology affects the social.’ I go back to danah’s work for good reasons.

Michael Kieslinger and Molly Wright Steenson, ‘Fluidtime’ (slides)
Although Interaction-Ivrea‘s time was short, its legacy is long thanks to the quality of the work that came out of it. Everyone who was at this talk remembers the web-based system for booking time on a shared washing machine and receiving alerts when your laundry is done (which echoes forward) but the broader reflections on how scheduling becomes a moving target (and movable feast) among connected groups are no less relevant.

Chris Heathcote, ’35 Ways to Find Your Location’ (slides)
‘In 10 years’ time there will be no concept of “lost”‘ is how it begins, and while that’s not entirely accurate, it feels like an ever-shrinking terra incognita on the map. (Compare early seasons of The Amazing Race to newer ones: getting directions in unfamiliar locations with large populations is much less of a challenge, and when teams get lost, it’s often due to the artificial constraints that the producers now enforce upon teams.) Chris’s talk on the many facets of wayfinding holds value to this day; we’re already at the point of his social future in which location can be drawn from ‘who you are near’, ‘objects you are near’ and aggregated flows. (If you were on Tinder a week ago and a lot of young snowboarders showed up, chances are you were in Sochi.)

Matt Webb, ‘Glancing: I’m OK, You’re OK’ (slides and notes)
Socially ambiguous software; minimalist interaction; phatic reciprocity; subtle networked presence, analogue statefulness: I see hints of it in the ‘oh hey’ in-passing dialect of certain corners of Twitter, or in certain uses of the fave and like, and other hints of its dissemination into connected devices. The promise of the Internet of Things will depend upon its ability to glance.

As the line goes, predictions are hard, especially about the future, but perhaps what gives these talks their sticking power is how they’re not tied to specific technologies, but instead focus on human interaction. People don’t change much: if you get that part right, you’ll be forgiven for what you place on their laps or in their pockets a decade on. The stuff of technology changes quickly, but the most important questions we ask of it are the ones we ask slowly, and keep asking.

This past month also brought us Webstock, beloved of all who attend and an ongoing source of inspiration for those who watch from afar. There too, the most important questions focus on people first, and are ones we’ll likely revisit in a decade.

provincial towns you jog ’round

Prompted by Chris’s tweet:

I decided to poke around Foursquare’s top checkins in various decent-sized British towns and cities outside London. Turns out Wagamama is also the top place for food in Cardiff, and in the top five in at least half a dozen others: Norwich, Nottingham, Reading, High Wycombe, Portsmouth and even Birmingham. Look more broadly, and some other names start showing up again and again: McDonalds, KFC, Nando’s, Toby Carvery, Harvester, Frankie and Benny’s, Walkabout. In towns like Stoke or Huddersfield or Gloucester, it’s chains all the way down.

Foursquare Food: Huddersfield

From that, you might think that British Foursquare users have pretty lowbrow taste in food, but given the reviews, that’s clearly not what’s going on here. You might also suspect that these chains are rewarding Foursquare checkins with discounts, but that’s also not quite right. Instead, they all have one thing in common: free wifi.

That surprised me, because in spite of the relatively low cost of mobile service in the UK — as little as £12/mo gets you a tariff with unlimited data — it implies that Foursquare is being used primarily in locations with a wifi connection, where access isn’t limited to mobile network speeds, and won’t eat into any data cap.

Where are the exceptions to the chain dominance here? Generally, larger and more affluent towns and cities, especially ones with large student populations: Manchester, Brighton, Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, York, Bristol, Bath, Glasgow, Edinburgh. But even there, the top checkins tend to be at coffee shops and other places that have wifi available.

It’s hardly a scientific analysis, but it suggests that even as internet use switches to mobile platforms, we shouldn’t assume that smartphone ownership translates smoothly into active use of online services when that means drawing upon mobile data.