Maps

Here's What Google Maps' Customization Might Mean in Practice

The new maps may eventually funnel us each into different experiences of the same neighborhood. Is that a bad thing?

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Google Maps

If you were quick to click for an invite to the new Google Maps two weeks ago, when the tech giant first announced a major overhaul of the eight-year-old service, you're probably in by now, wandering around for transit directions and restaurant reviews, and giving Google an ever-wider window into your personal preferences in the process.

As we've previously written, the new platform differs dramatically from the old one in that Google is using everything it learns about you to build you dynamically customizable maps – an idea that we're not entirely sold on. If you're poking around, though, it may be a little hard to appreciate exactly what this means in practice (by definition, it's impossible to see what's not being shown to you).

As a start, we tried a small experiment in our office. Here is my search for "restaurants" near the Atlantic Cities office in Northwest Washington (I have starred a few of the results):

Here are the results of the same query for Henry Grabar, who sits a few feet away from me:

And for Sara Johnson:

The exercise of comparing these maps is a particularly painful form of photo hunt. But some inexplicable differences do appear: Henry never learns about Bertucci's (in real life, in fact, he has no idea what that is). Sara and I aren't told about the fancy Italian place just downstairs from our office, Ancora. Henry gets a Peruvian place known for its pisco sours, while Sara (a vegetarian) gets some extra tips about the butternut squash soup at Notti Bianche for her pre-theater dinner.

These imperceptible differences may eventually funnel us each into different experiences of the same neighborhood (at least, that is, until we all bump into each other at the Panda Cafe). Yesterday, Evgeny Morozov wrote a provocative piece over at Slate pushing our own suspicions even further as to why all of this might be a bad thing.

Google's vision of infinite customization, Morozov writes, "doesn't acknowledge the vital role that disorder, chaos, and novelty play in shaping the urban experience." Even worse, it threatens to relegate to obscurity those places right in our midst that aren't monetized and advertized and rated: public spaces. Writes Morovoz:

Google's urbanism, on the other hand, is that of someone who is trying to get to a shopping mall in their self-driving car. It's profoundly utilitarian, even selfish in character, with little to no concern for how public space is experienced. In Google's world, public space is just something that stands between your house and the well-reviewed restaurant that you are dying to get to. Since no one formally reviews public space or mentions it in their emails, it might as well disappear from Google's highly personalized maps.

Morozov, known for his darker takes on technology, casts a particularly depressing picture here where public space itself fades into the background just as a diner of little note inevitably will. That prediction sounds extreme, but it's certainly worth thinking about the question of what will happen to the spaces in between all of those red dots pictured above.

This argument from Morozov against customized maps is particularly relevant to anyone invested in those spaces:

It's quite simple, really: When you and I look at the same map, there's a good chance that we might strike a conversation about how to enrich the space that the map represents—perhaps plant more trees or build a sidewalk or install some benches.

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.