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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?

"You can try before you buy," he says. "My wife and I used Street View last year before a holiday in London, to look at hotels and see if they had decent access for strollers, because we were bringing our daughter." He points out that you can also examine a neighbourhood for amenities, or check that it looks safe.

Quigley agrees that the "McDonaldisation" of the world isn't inevitable. "I'm sure we'll all have our McDonald's holidays, our easyJet experiences, but people realise that that's a weak imitation of what they could be doing," he says. "We went to a place in the mountains in Morocco, overlooking a big washed-out valley, and they had this festival on a hillside, and they lit it up with candles and a bonfire.

"It was an irreplaceable moment. No one else could do this. And there are hundreds of places doing something equivalent: not giving you a better breakfast, or more food, but an experience. And technology is allowing people to become an advocate for these experiences."

And, of course, Google Maps allows us to see things we would never normally see. "I'm not Muslim, so I'll never be allowed to go to Mecca, to see the Kaaba," says Quigley. "But I've seen it on Google Earth, and I can zoom in to the great black stone, and it's incredibly impressive. And then I can zoom out, to a mile or so in the air, and you see the city like eight Las Vegases glued together, and it's just mind-blowing.

"Similarly, there are islands off the coast of Scotland where tourists aren't allowed because they were doing too much damage to the environment. There are lots of places we'll never be able to go, and this sort of thing provides a window."

But the "window" is damaging when you're looking through it unnecessarily, he says. "When you're a tourist, you should be there to see what's in front of you - not looking at your iPhone, saying, 'Here's an amazing photo of the thing I'm supposed to be looking at'," he says. He thinks an eyes-up, rather than eyes-down, technology could change things profoundly, "freeing our attention from our devices, reconnecting us with physical reality, the view of reality that we actually see". That may be on the horizon, with Google's Glass project - a pair of glasses that can overlay digital information onto your vision - although whether it catches on remains to be seen.

Whatever the risks and benefits, though, there's no going back to a pre-Google Maps time. We rely on it too much. Last year, when Apple's iPhones stopped using Google Maps, people were forced briefly to use Apple's (at the time) unreliable own-brand equivalent. Within days, six motorists in Australia had to be rescued from the middle of a remote forest, after being directed 40 miles off target. One of them had been stranded for 24 hours without food or water. That is an extreme example, but large sections of our species have forgotten how to get from A to B unless their phone points the way. Even, these days, in North Korea.


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