Maps, Maps, Maps, Maps

There are a gazillion ways to communicate, but one of my favorite methods is maps.

Early in our relationship, Suzanne and I divided certain responsibilities. The divisions fell predominantly along lines of competence. It fell out quickly that I often mispronounced words. I mean I really, completely, embarrassingly mispronounced words. I knew the words from print, but often had not heard them spoken. “Chasm” and “abyss” come quickly to mind, and they represented the location of my stomach after hearing their correct pronunciations.

During our courting, we also learned that I kick butt with maps and directions, while Suzanne struggles. Maybe it comes from my Midwest upbringing, with our easy grid of North-South, East-West streets that give a constant sense of bearing. Or it could be a genetic thing. My dear mother-in-law lived in Vienna, Va., for nearly 30 years and thought that every time she drove into DC, she was heading north, not east towards the rising sun. Bless her heart.

So, the family phrase became, “Suzanne is in charge of pronunciation; Paul is in charge of directions.” You have no idea how many arguments you can head off with that simple understanding.

My real point is I love maps, and I hold an inordinate amount of pride in my ability to navigate using one. But the future of printed maps is in doubt. Why? Global positioning systems (GPS). Instead of spreading the Rand McNally on my lap and determining how long my bladder can hold out until the next rest area, I just punch a few keys on the dashboard monitor and not only come up with a time, but six alternative destinations that provide bathroom solutions and snack possibilities.

Before

So, you’d figure that now that any Tom Dick and Mother-in-law has my vaunted capabilities, I’d be miffed about this changing technology. Perhaps, I should lament the death of printed maps and rail against the heavens because electronic media has usurped my distinction.

After

Truth? Let me answer with a quick question. Have you ever driven through the Catskills? After dark? Trying to find an obscure hotel? Now that’s a place you can get lost for a long time. Just ask Rip Van Winkle. Even with my over-the-top superior mapping and navigation skills, I fell in love with my rental car GPS, which we quickly named “Ingrid” for her Teutonic efficiency.

Next time you think about your love of books and magazines and all things print, remember that love may prove as fickle as a high-school crush.

There’s something I love even more about electronic media, though. It saves space.

Before
After
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What Is New Is Old Already

The pace of change in communication has become so breathtaking that even the most dedicated followers are struggling to keep up. In the early 90s, when I was a young editor at Remodeling magazine, I could recite the location and area code for every major city in the country. 415? San Francisco. 312? Chicago. 303? Denver.

I could do that because I spent hours on the phone, accomplishing what every editor does today with a simple internet search. And, back in olden times, we knew those area codes, because every city only had one. Now, every city has multiple codes, and they often overlap.

Okay, as my son would say, “That’s a nice story grandpa, but what’s it mean?” It means this. Those changes, while fundamental, were really quite simple compared to what’s happening now. Watch this video from 2007. (It’s only 7 1/2 minutes.) It has been one of my favorites for its vision of what a dedicated community of users can achieve with content integration.

Blaise Aguera y Arcas paints a future that shows how our understanding of the world can deepen and become more sublime through the collective involvement of individual contributors.  As he says,

“We can do things with the social environment. This is now taking data from everybody. From the entire collective memory, visually, of what the earth looks like and link all of that together… make something emergent that is greater than the sum of the parts.”

What’s cool about this vision of the future from more than two years ago? It’s already happening. Here are two examples.

I went to Photosynth.net today and created a detailed view of the front elevation of my house. (Click here to see.) It took me less than 10 minutes to accomplish, including taking the photos. More effort would only have led to a far more dynamic and interactive experience, but consider how much I accomplished with so little effort. That speed of change is awe-inspiring and nearly impossible to track.

What’s cool about this vision of the future? Go to Google Maps or Bing Maps. Look at the photos posted in popular tourist areas. They’re pulled from Flickr and other sources, and they give you a view of the environment we’ve never been able to capture or navigate. Consider this image I found on the photo options for Google Maps. Each point or arrow moves you to a new view, greater detail, or a different perspective.

We see the same thing being done collectively now that was just a vision of the future in 2007. As Aguera y Arcas said,

“It grows in complexity as people use it, and the benefits become greater to the users as they use it.”

I still return to this video just to experience the frisson of excitement it gives me about the future of communication and the value of connecting a community. We have no idea where this revolution will lead us, but I can promise you two things.

  1. The creation of content will be the driving force of the revolution.
  2. The revolution will provide greater freedom, creativity, and information for more people than any movement in the history of the world.

Those are good things. If the invention of the movable-type printing press eventually led to the creation of the middle-class, then who knows what benefit will arise from even further democratization of information.