You, get off my dashboard

By Ben Macintyre (THE TIMES, 19/05/06):

I HAVE A FRIEND who has fallen in love with the satellite navigation system in his car. His sat-nav has a female American voice. My friend thinks she may be from the Midwest. He calls her Charlene. He likes the way she tells him what to do, coaxingly, but with complete conviction. Sometimes he deliberately takes a wrong turning, just to make her cross. Charlene is lovely when she’s angry, he says. But then, when he gets to where he is going and she purrs “You have reached your destination”, he feels fulfilled. He loves Charlene.

I hate Charlene. I hate her smug topographical omniscience. She never admits she is wrong (a characteristic not confined to mechanical passenger-seat navigators), even though she frequently is: as demonstrated last week by the ambulance that took twice as long as necessary to get a child to hospital because the driver insisted on slavish obedience to his sat-nav. Frequently, Charlene is entirely misleading: dozens of motorists recently followed their navigation systems into a ford in the village of Luckington, ignoring the warning road signs. And she is no help in a crisis. If you drive on to a car ferry, Charlene assumes you have toppled into the drink, but instead of screaming “Oh God you idiot why didn’t you listen to me we are all going to drown”, she just falls sulkily silent.

But above all, I resent Charlene because she and her like are gradually killing off maps, the charts that have revealed the changing contours of our world and minds since the birth of culture. English mapmakers once placed the phrase Hic sunt dracones, “Here be dragons”, on maps to mark the edges of the known world. Charlene has slain what few dragons remained. With a GPS embedded in dashboard, wristwatch or mobile telephone, we will never be lost again.

The global positioning system saves many lives, and prevents many marital spats, but it has also made the world flat in a way that it never was before. In the past, maps were never simply a tool to get from one place to another by the shortest route. Older than the written word by several millennia, maps are a way of framing existence, a philosophical and political statement as much as a travel aid.

Maps made by Pacific Islanders in ancient times showed not the coastline or the islands but the pathways of the ocean currents vital to transport and fishing. Medieval maps placed the holy city of Jerusalem at the centre of the world.

Maps projected ideas and imposed order. Novelists have often used imagined maps to comment on the real world — Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Brobdingnag in Gulliver’s Travels — but then ancient maps were always partly fictions, designed to show what was important or interesting as much as what was where. If there were holes in geographical knowledge, cartographers used their imaginations. In Jonathan Swift’s verse: “So geographers, in Afric-maps/ With savage pictures fill their gaps/ And o’er uninhabitable downs/ Place elephants for want of towns.” In ancient maps of Constantinople, Hagia Sophia, the Church of Holy Wisdom, towers disproportionately huge over the city, evidence of earthly piety. What a map said depended, in large measure, on who was drawing it and, even more importantly, on who was paying for it.

Maps revealed our prejudices and preoccupations, but they also projected power and control. The Nazis drew up cartoon maps of idealised Aryan towns, with busy factories, orderly Hitler Youth schools, and Strength Through Joy leisure parks. At around the time of the French Revolution, governments realised the power of cartography, and map-making became a military preserve.

The Victorian polymath and geographer Francis Galton (a cousin of Darwin and, incidentally, the man who prepared the first weather map in The Times on April 1, 1875) once drew up a beauty map of Britain. He travelled the country assessing the attractiveness of the female inhabitants on a sliding scale, and then drew up a map showing the results: the most handsome women in Britain, he concluded, were in London; the ugliest, in Aberdeen. An unconscionable slur, but proof that a map’s meaning, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

The nature of map-making changed for ever when Bill Clinton descrambled the global positioning system in 2000. The EU is currently working on a project to pool geographical data from every European country, in order to produce the most detailed map imaginable: every house, path, roundabout, streetlight and stream. Lewis Carroll once imagined a paper map with the scale 1 inch to 1 inch, but “the farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight!”. Carroll’s joke is now a virtual reality.

The paper map will soon die, and with it something central to human experience. There is a joy is not knowing exactly where you are. The electronic gizmo takes you from A to Z, but it does not show you the place you never knew about, off at the side of the map, the road less travelled. The joy of exploration lies in not knowing exactly where you are, or where you are going, in trying to match the visual world outside with the one-dimensional world represented by the map. Wherever you go now, the machine has got there first.

The good news is that maps always adapt, and electronic maps are adapting at an astonishing rate, perhaps returning us to an earlier form of cartography, where the map can tell you just about anything you care to imagine. By marrying digital mapping with all sort of other information, the map of the future will not only inform us where we are, but reveal other things important or interesting: the nearest cheese shop, the density of traffic wardens, the menu of the village pub and perhaps, in a strange realisation of Galton’s map, whether the local inhabitants are attractive or not.

It may well be that, as we drive into Aberdeen in the future, Charlene will murmur, in her know-all drawl: “Here be dragons.”