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Google holds a mirror up to the world

Tom Chivers (via Sunday Telegraph, London/ SMH) | June 5, 2013
The team behind Google Maps won't stop until it has every last inch of the planet stored on its servers. Would we really be so lost without them?

Google Maps: Would we be lost without them?
Google Maps: Would we be lost without them? Photo: Getty Images/AFP

Are you planning a holiday to North Korea? Probably not. But if you are, your job will be a lot easier now that Google Maps covers the place.

You could, if you like, use it to navigate your way from Yongbyon nuclear site, along Nuclear Test Road (as it is, apparently, called), to Camp 22, one of the many scenic prison-labour camps along the country's border with China. What's more, you can do it all on beautifully rendered satellite photos of the area.

"Our goal is to put together a sort of digital mirror of the world," says Dan Sieberg, a Google exec and self-described "evangelist" for the Google Maps revolution. (Religious imagery comes naturally to Googlers: one of Sieberg's colleagues describes him as a "guru". The whole company has a slight hippy-cult feel to it; The Telegraph can report that there are few more awkward feelings in life than turning up at the Google office wearing a suit and tie, only to be surrounded by people in three-quarter-length trousers and novelty slippers. It feels like your cufflinks are burning your skin.)Of course, you'd struggle with mobile internet connectivity, but even that, nowadays, needn't be a problem - you can download the maps before you go. Frankly, it is surprising that the Pyongyang Office of Tourism doesn't make more of the facility.

Anyway, the construction of Google's "digital mirror" was never going to be stopped by a few pesky details, such as the interminable 60-year war between North and South Korea, or the existence in one of those countries of a brutally repressive communist police state.

Google Maps is now so ubiquitous, such a vital part of so many lives, that it feels odd to think it didn't exist until 2005. Of all of the search giant's many tentacles reaching octopus-like into every area of our existence, Maps, together with its partner Google Earth and their various offspring, can probably claim to have changed our day-to-day life the most.

"I think that mapping is one of those things that we perhaps couldn't live without," says Sieberg. "It's become such an essential part of understanding a new city, or getting to a meeting quickly, or planning a vacation."

Any of us who now set off to meet someone with only the vaguest idea of where we're going, confident in the ability of the magic box in our hands to guide us, knows what he means. In the same way that the advent of mobile phones stopped us having to worry about arranging to meet at a certain place and time ("Ring me when you get to the station"), so the appearance of maps on those phones has stopped us having to worry about knowing our way around a city. We can arrive anywhere - Edinburgh, Cologne, Tokyo - and within moments know our way to our hotel, have a list of the best-rated restaurants and know the best route to take on the metro.


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