Downtime

Atlas Shrugs

My favorite way of killing time? Exploring the wild, weird limits of Google Maps.

Photo illustration of Earth, islands, and a one-star rating.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by NASA and Google.

Rabbit Holes is a recurring series in which writers pay homage to the diversity and ingenuity of the ways we procrastinate now. To pitch your personal rabbit hole, email humaninterest@slate.com.

Lakshmi Mudragada did not have a good time on Sea Cow Island. Sure, the potato-shaped land mass in the middle of the Indian Ocean doesn’t have any amenities, but the generic tropical beach picture on Google Maps looks nice enough. What went wrong? The one-star review on Google isn’t accompanied by text, so perhaps the story behind it will always be a mystery. But trying to untangle the mysteries behind various aspects of Google Maps is my preferred way to kill time.

For example, how did Lakshmi get out to SCI in the first place? Or did they even really go there at all? When you try to get directions to the remote British territory from Brooklyn, for instance, it breaks the program. Rather than direct you to a regional airport in Madagascar or somewhere else “nearby,” it just zooms out so far that it shows a picture of Earth situated in the black expanse of outer space. I find this only slightly more intriguing than terrifying.

Even though I spend all day on the internet, my world feels very small sometimes. The lives of people in areas like Palau or the Marshall Islands aren’t usually portrayed on TV or film. But Google Maps reviewers provide clues from which I can make up stories about these places on the other side of the earth, and sometimes they offer pictures that help fill in a coherent vision of them. It’s like a choose-your-own-adventure travel guide where everything is annotated in the most bizarre way possible—a “Bandersnatch” where you can play for as long or as little as you like and don’t have to worry about reaching any sort of satisfying narrative conclusion.

When the story broke about the missionary who was killed trying to contact the last pre-Neolithic society on earth off the coast of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands this past November, I understood his curiosity, if not his confidence. I’d already pored over the Bay of Bengal and its archipelago from the comfort of my desk chair, and I’d seen the offerings at a roadside restaurant off National Highway 4 that takes you from the coastal point of Mayabunder to the capital of Port Blair. I’d also noticed that Google did not have the slightest data point available for the last place the missionary ever tried to set foot, beyond the fact that it existed.

My procrastination habit isn’t just limited to the last blank spots on the Google map either; more familiar places work just as well. A co-worker recently told me that his sister had moved to someplace in my home state of Florida; he had to go and Google the name, even though he’d just been there. It turns out the forgettable town was called Freeport, and upon learning this, my immediate instinct was to look it up. It’s a suburb and therefore shaped like a plate of spaghetti, with no obvious Main Street or place to begin a journey. Searching for a clue of where to start, I scrolled through the place’s few commercial offerings, which is how I ended up on the page for Paul Lee Tattoo. The proprietor’s works include your typical yin-yangs and tribal patterns, sure, but photos from the shop also include a still-bleeding back freshly inked with a gator depicted busting through a wall like a reptilian version of the Kool-Aid Man. After completing this digital trek, I was pleased to report back to my co-worker with sympathies and a pointed recommendation of where his sister should never get a tattoo.

Looking at your own hometown through the lens of Google Maps can also be enlightening. After all, the reviews represent a collection of what people there deem important or indicative of—something, although of what is up to you. In the case of Lake Mary, Florida, you get front-on shots of cookie-cutter houses and architecturally lacking commercial properties, a Chick-fil-A decorated for Christmas, a bad-looking steak at a sports bar, empty parking lots, and a Confederate flag in a display case.

That’s a relatively accurate portrait, though not one I would have ever put together myself. I wonder how it would read to an outsider, though, or to someone as unfamiliar with the American South as I am with an app-breaking destination called Tristan da Cunha? All I have to go on there are cryptic yet poetic messages that give me no idea of what a lived experience is actually like in the most remote yet inhabited archipelago on earth. Oddly: “The people … drift off walking sideways mid conversation.” Ominously: “The return to the past is the real future.” Or, more simply: “Too far.”