Future Tense

My Map or Yours?

Google’s plan to personalize maps could end public space as we know it.

The new Google Maps personalized interface.
Judging by the changes it seeks to make to maps, Google’s foray into the public space could have drastic implications

Screenshot courtesy of Google Maps

Last February, in an interview with the technology blog TechCrunch, a senior Google executive expressed a rather philosophical—even postmodernist—view on the future of maps. “If you look at a map and if I look at a map, should it always be the same for you and me? I’m not sure about that, because I go to different places than you do,” said Daniel Graf, director of Google Maps for mobile.

By mid-May, as Google announced the upcoming release of the new version of its flagship map service, it became clear that Graf wasn’t joking. In the near future (Google says it will “be rolling it out to more people in the coming days and weeks”), the maps we see will be dynamically generated and highly personalized, giving preferential treatment to the places frequented by our social networking friends, the places we mention in our emails, the sites we look up on the search engine. Conversely, the places that we haven’t encountered—or, at least, haven’t yet expressed any interest in encountering—will be harder to find.

This might seem liberating and empowering—that, at any rate, is how Google wants us to see this new development. “In the past,” reads the company’s announcement, “a map was just a map, and you got the same one for New York City, whether you were searching for the Empire State Building or the coffee shop down the street. What if, instead, you had a map that’s unique to you, always adapting to the task you want to perform right this minute?”

From an advertising perspective, this is an ingenious move. Suppose that Google knows which of its users have previously mentioned a certain local restaurant in their email correspondence. Wouldn’t it make sense for Google to approach that restaurant’s proprietor and offer to reach all those users while they are using Google Maps—while hinting that other restaurants, the ones that those users haven’t yet expressed much interest in, would be harder to find? The legality of this might be murky, but if it happens, it’s inevitable that those places that attract the least buzz would be condemned to information obscurity. And once maps become fully personalized, even successful establishments can no longer assume they would actually be found. All of a sudden, pre-emptive advertising would look like a most sensible option to any business owner—much to Google’s delight. 

There’s something profoundly conservative about Google’s logic. As long as advertising is the mainstay of its business, the company is not really interested in systematically introducing radical novelty into our lives. To succeed with advertisers, it needs to convince them that its view of us customers is accurate and that it can generate predictions about where we are likely to go (or, for that matter, what we are likely to click). The best way to do that is to actually turn us into highly predictable creatures by artificially limiting our choices. Another way is to nudge us to go to places frequented by other people like us—like our Google Plus friends. In short, Google prefers a world where we consistently go to three restaurants to a world where our choices are impossible to predict.

At first, it might seem that what Google is doing to maps is not very different from what it has done to search results. Those too have moved from universal—i.e., everyone saw the same search results—to highly personalized—i.e., what we see when we click the search button reflects our previous search history. But customization was easier to defend in the context of search: If you type “pizza” into your search field, it makes sense for Google to show you results from the local restaurants rather than from across the globe. But the personalization of maps takes this logic to the ugly extreme: Now when you type in “pizza,” you would see those restaurants that, according to Google, you are likely to approve of—and not pizzerias that haven’t yet crossed your radar.

Judging by the changes it seeks to make to maps, Google’s foray into the public space more broadly could have drastic implications. After all, it’s not just maps: Google’s self-driving cars and smart glasses will profoundly affect how we experience the world outside. Granted they will do it in different ways, and there is no need to fear the mediation of our urban experience just because it involves latest technology. But there are few signs that Google actually recognizes its likely future impact on public space, treating it much the same way it treats books or weather forecasts. Space, for Google, is just one more type of information that ought to be organized so that the company can move closer to accomplishing its bold mission of “organizing all of the world’s information.” As one of its mapping engineers put it last year, “anything that you see in the real world needs to be in our database.” Unsurprisingly, enriching the database—rather than our urban experience—is the company’s primary objective.

The problem with Google’s vision is that it doesn’t acknowledge the vital role that disorder, chaos, and novelty play in shaping the urban experience. Back in 1970, cultural critic Richard Sennett wrote a wonderful little book—The Users of Disorder—that all Google engineers should read. In it, Sennett made a strong case for “dense, disorderly, overwhelming cities,” where strangers from very different socio-economic backgrounds still rub shoulders. Sennett’s ideal city is not just an agglomeration of ghettos and gated communities whose residents never talk to one another; rather, it’s the mutual entanglement between the two—and the occasionally mess that such entanglements introduce into our daily life—that makes it an interesting place to live in and allows its inhabitants to turn into mature and complex human beings.

Google’s urbanism, on the other hand, is that of someone who is trying to get to a shopping mall in their self-driving car. It’s profoundly utilitarian, even selfish in character, with little to no concern for how public space is experienced. In Google’s world, public space is just something that stands between your house and the well-reviewed restaurant that you are dying to get to. Since no one formally reviews public space or mentions it in their emails, it might as well disappear from Google’s highly personalized maps. And if the promotional videos for Google Glass are anything to judge by, we might not even notice it’s gone: For all we know, we might be walking through an urban desert, but Google Glass will still make it look exciting, masking the blighted reality.

The main reason to celebrate maps that aren’t personalized has nothing to do with technophobia or nostalgia about the pre-Google days. It’s quite simple, really: When you and I look at the same map, there’s a good chance that we might strike a conversation about how to enrich the space that the map represents—perhaps plant more trees or build a sidewalk or install some benches. That our experience of what used to be public space is getting increasingly privatized—first with smartphones, then with Google Glass and self-driving cars. True, cars are already something of a private space, but if the driver essentially becomes a passenger, she will pay even less attention to the outside environment. You can’t watch. That all of this is done in the name of “organizing the world’s information” should worry anyone concerned with the future of urbanism.

If Google has its way, our public space might soon look like the Californian suburbia that the company calls home: nice but isolated, sunny but relying on decrepit infrastructure, orderly but segregated by income. What Richard Sennett said of suburbanites in Uses of Disorder—that they are “people who are afraid to live in a world they cannot control”—is equally true of Google’s optimizers. But the lack of control is simply the price we have to pay for living in complex, diverse, and cosmopolitan environments that we call “cities.” Alas, for all its impact on impact on urbanism, there’s yet no sign that Google understands what it is—and what it is for. 

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.