Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
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Welcome to Byte Vale
In the cog-sci classic Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson asserted that human communication is structured by metaphor. In English, we argue as if we’re at war: Stop attacking me. We liken time to money: I wasted my Sunday. We describe our words like transmissions: Here’s what I’m trying to get across.
No wonder the Internet has cycled through so many metaphors. Its true form is a shapeless flurry of data packets (see, there I go!). To give that lack of structure a sense of meaning and purpose, early users analogized the web to a number of real-world phenomena, such as “superhighways,” “web surfing,” and “global villages.” Even “cyberspace” suggests that the Internet is happening in some alternative, non-physical dimension. (It’s not.)
In the 1990s, few metaphors were as powerful as the one on Geocities, at one point the third-most popular website. It offered a vision of a network of communities, with fixed addresses and place names, giving its “inhabitants” a clear understanding of how it was supposed to be used. On CityLab, the writer Tanner Howard remembers how Geocities suburbanized the Internet:
While AOL and Netscape helped early users find their way around the net, it was Geocities that gave them a home. Quite literally: In order to establish a presence on the nascent hosting site, users were tasked with finding an empty lot in one of the website’s 29 thematic neighborhoods. Whether it was the HotSprings (“where the focus is on health and fitness”) or Area51 (“A brave new world for science fiction and fantasy fans”), the ability to enter a community based on similar interests and hobbies, with fellow users understood as digital neighbors, was an alluring proposition.
“Discovery [was] so tough in that early period,” noted Ian Milligan, an associate professor of history at the University of Waterloo, who has done extensive research on Geocities. “People were surfing to find content, and these spatial metaphors helped them find what they were looking for.”
The original Geocities didn’t have a map to help its users travel between communities. Howard describes how users likened themselves to “homesteaders,” settling a vast and untouched cyberspace frontier. But years after the website shuttered in 1999—and eventually made way for college yearbooks, town squares, and other social metaphors for our online lives—the artist Richard Veijen launched Deleted City, an online map of all 652 gigabytes of Geocities websites. By charting the Geocities neighborhoods as matryoshka-like clusters of information, Veijen makes the site’s implied relationship between digital and physical more literal.
Check it out—it’s hard to describe, maybe because it’s so dang meta. Maps are metaphors, too: they’re essential for communication, totally ubiquitous, and yet always incomplete, in that they emphasize certain features over others. Metaphors and maps get us to a point of agreement about the way something is, even though there may be a million other ways to see it. For example, what if we thought of arguments as a playful dance, where no one wins or loses? What if city maps centered around a focal point other than downtown?
More cyber-cartography: “Beautiful, illegal, and intriguing ways to map the Internet.” (Wired)
Location, location, location
Last month, on the tails of a New York Times investigation that found third-party data marketers can learn intimate details by tracking your phone location, I asked MapLab readers what you thought about the implications, good and bad. Your reactions ran the gamut. I’ve edited a few here for space and clarity.
The Times exposé was more or less old news, Mary Chipman wrote:
How do you think we got saddled with voting machines that cannot be secured without violating the laws of physics? Because it's all a "black box" for the technically ignorant. Database professionals always knew this simple fact, but software vendors preferred to make a buck flogging voting machines they knew could be easily hacked. Expecting Big Tech to give a rat's patootie about privacy or security has ALWAYS been a chump's game. I just never say anything online or in email that I don't want the universe to know.
Emilio Velos pointed out that the location privacy risks run higher in different parts of the world:
In El Salvador where I live, there is a very fine line between life and death in most cities due to gang activity and territories. In fact, having location information can give out who is part of which territory. A person whose location information isn't protected could be used to know where a person lives and where they feel free to move around (which does not mean that they're part of a gang at all). People already have problems finding jobs due to where they live, but this might take it to a different level if companies get ahold of people's location information.
Josh Whitkin wrote to say that he wears a few hats when he considers this debate. As a “power techie,” he wrote that the benefits of allowing Google Maps to track him and his loved ones outweigh the problems. “Watching my teen son walk home from school, and having him watch me walk to the store, is great for both of us,” he wrote. But as an app designer, Whitkin continued,
My academic training taught me to collect the lowest quality information I need to deliver the benefits the user wants or needs. If time zone or zip code is enough for matching players in a game lobby, I get that instead of [GPS coordinates]. This saves storage, prevents making my data a hacker target, protects us from regulatory risks, and feels like "the right thing to do" ethically for my user.
Conversely, mapmakers, what has location data allowed you to do, make, or discover that once seemed impossible? Write me, and I might feature you in a coming issue.
More-than-gray matter: Pioneering brain maps can visualize organelles and trace the path of neurons. (MIT News) ♦ Rocky start: New Hampshire is crowdsourcing a map of its historic stone walls. (NHPR) ♦ Artificial unintelligence: Why paper maps still matter. (The Conversation) ♦ If you’re not already obsessed with the NYC subway: Play with these ridership visualizations. (Gothamist) ♦ Hell and high water: Maine communities are grappling with inaccurate new flood insurance maps. (Pacific Standard) ♦ Playing favorites: Rural Australians complain Google Maps avoids sending tourists to the outback. (BBC) ♦ Cell reception: The brain stores memories like it positions your sense of location. (Quanta)
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