A Map of the World

Back in the early days of the Web, its biggest selling point (in a giant cloud of delectable intellectual seductions and complete boneheaded and hedonistic time-wasters) was its capacity to provide news and opinion, and updates of same, in words and pictures (later, of the moving kind), instantly, constantly. For an information junkie, it was the mother lode of resources, on-demand updatedness, and enough headline skimming for one to absorb and then project the appearance of knowingness. It was great fun, bouncing from story to story, site to site, seeing more, gaining aspects, having a panoply of voices informing (and misinforming) one’s own.

But, then, with all this news available, people started to do a strange thing: limiting their scope. Through the use of aggregator algorithms, readers were able to shut out all news except those they specified: You could tell the program or site that all you wanted to see was, say, business news, or sports news, and what was provided for you was just that and nothing more. And that ability to determine line of sight when it came to being informed, that specialization, changed everything: it changed how knowledgeable we were as a people (less broadly so); it changed our view of the world (more narrowly so); and it began the end of newspapers, which could not personally aggregate and segregate focused news for each individual reader.

And, for a news junkie, that was the shocker: Why would you want to know less – that is, more about a few things but less about everything else? Why filter out the greater world? The paradigm of newspaper reading was that of a journey, through space and time; one in which you followed paths to destinations that you wanted to get to (jumping from Page One to Page 12, for instance), but by doing so it became one in which you also bumped into things you didn’t know you might, fascinating, illuminating, even life-changing things. That little story on Page 12, at the bottom, was likely the one you remembered all day and told people about at the water cooler.

In what is described as our hectic world and hurly-burly lives, we feel the need to shave off precious seconds of wasted time by cutting to the chase – bypassing the rose and coffee smells – and by doing so what we have lost is chance and the lucky accident … serendipity, or, perhaps, fate. And by the way we use the Internet for our news instead of the locational, processual, processional walk through a newspaper, the placeness of it all is gone, too, as well as the art of mastering the maneuvering through and understanding of that placeness. We get information, but, somehow, we haven’t earned it. Getting to specifics is our one goal – everything else is just the fly-over.

And so it is, in terms of placeness, ironically, in the way we now figure out our travel plans. The journey has been removed from map reading, and the placeness has been excised from the finding.

We here at arslocii have been trying, the past few days, to plot out a car trip of several hundreds of miles, across a half-dozen states, in little more than a handful of days. One of us – the one most intoxicated by the Internet (okay, okay, that would be the male version of the animal) – is charting the course using Google Maps, a generally  excellent service combining fine mapping with the kind of GPS-ish, turn-here-then-there directions once limited to MapQuest. The other of us is doing it the old-fashion way: the several years’ old Rand McNally road atlas. (Do they actually make them new, or do they all roll off the presses somehow old?) Actually, it’s copyright 1998. Google is as current as … well, more current than 1998.

Using Google Maps, one is speedily propelled to desired locations, and distances between these desired locations are instantaneously calculated. The program seems to understand, a bit eerily, where you might be headed based on where you’re starting from: as you type in the first few letters of your next stop, a drop-down menu suggests possibilities and, almost invariably, the first option offered is the one you were looking for. Impressive and ingenious, there is a sureness about it, a feeling of authority – with a speed that is winning. It’s not quite magical, but it is quite remarkable. And fun – like an arcade game, but with a point.

And yet … there’s something wrong there.

Although Google Maps finds the town you want with all due haste, it is like the news aggregating programs: key spots, and all the rest is fly-over. Plus, the paradigm of travel is obliterated: using the book-form atlas, one is compelled to search – to “travel” – to find one’s way through the pages and what is on each page. The user, goes to an index at the back of the book, runs his eyes down a long, small-type list of towns and cities – already we’re traveling – finds the locale he wants and notes that on the map on Page 18 he can find his destination at something designated as “E-16.” Flip pages to get to the proper map, find the number 16 along the bottom of the page, place your finger on it and proceed to slip that finger vertically until it reaches the horizontal E axis, and then search within the defined rectangular area, filled with names and dots and red and yellow road lines, for the site you seek – all the while “traveling” through hamlets you’ve never heard of and burghs with odd or storied names, over blue creeks and through green state parks and by historical markers, actually touching them, all on your path to the name and dot that you want. Processual, processional, a simulacrum of real travel, the chance of seeing something you didn’t know was there. Serendipity. Placeness. Art. Slower? Sure. Less elegant? Certainly. More “human”? Definitely.

(And let’s not forget the creases and tears, the pen marks and spilled-food stains, on the pages once or most used – Google Maps screens provide no similar triggers to nostalgia and happiness, to memories of getting there, getting lost, getting angry, getting giggly, getting experience. Google Maps is new each time; the road atlas is a fellow wayfarer who, through many trips, sat on our lap and looked out the windshield with us.)

And more paradigm shattering: When you type in a town name into Google Map’s search, you are taken right to it, and have to move outward from it to find out where you are – to determine the context. With the Rand McNally, you start away from the goal and slowly move in its direction … just like real traveling, going from the general to the specific, from a loose set of parameters to a point.

Traveling, especially by car, is a pilgrimage of personal discovery in which the road experience is as pertinent as the arrival at Mecca. So is the planning portion: “Here’s where I start, here’s where I end up … and look at all that stuff we’ll pass through in-between.” All that stuff is what makes it all worthwhile.

As in geometry, a line is a series of points. So is traveling, and travel planning (and, don’t get me started, life itself): not a “Star Trek” beaming up, but a going towards, place by place by place.

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Filed under Culture, Life, Musings, Random

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