Google Maps has become a widely used technology, so much so that it may seem mundane. However, I argue that its introduction and usage has revolutionary implication on mobility, infrastructure, and space and has far reaching consequences for human behavior. In Scales of Place and Networks Sarah Green, Penny Harvey, and Hannah Knox state that, “One of the defining characteristics of new information and communications technologies is their capacity to alter the spatial conditions of existence.” Google Maps serves as an instant way to familiarize oneself with new surroundings. It also changes the way we interact with infrastructure in both new and familiar spaces.
Google Maps remakes spaces by democratizing them by making locations easily reachable. In doing so, it changes the individual’s relationship to travel and to infrastructure such as roads. Whereas one might have struggled to navigate from point A to B, this tension is alleviated by Google Maps. Therefore infrastructure and navigation no longer has the requisite burden of relying on localized knowledge of spaces or a concerted effort using maps to manually plan directions. While this democratizes travel, it also fundamentally changes our relationship to the spaces that the infrastructure of roads creates.
The democratization of space by Google Maps has implications that go farther than removing spatial limitation on the individual. Infrastructures become busier when more people have access to them. It also challenges notions of locality. If anyone can navigate local spaces just as a local would, then are all spaces rendered global, no matter how small or remote? While this creates greater diversity in travel, it also jeopardizes the ability for spaces to be truly local. Moreover, the value of the knowledge gained from spending years learning the infrastructure of a specific area carries a diminished value.
The act of democratizing infrastructure makes travel to new or lesser-known areas accessible. This is particularly consequential for tourists but impacts even those who are familiar with their surroundings. In both cases, Google Maps elicits behavioral changes in those who use it. For instance, the act of walking itself changes when you constantly look at your phone for guidance. Street signs become less important. Asking a stranger for directions, something that used to be commonplace, does not seem as socially acceptable. Why bother someone when you can look up directions on your phone?
The behaviors involved in mobility and travel have changed in many ways due to Google Maps. Writing down directions seems a thing of the past. As does using a physical map. Giving directions to friends or family is no longer as necessary. Any home, restaurant or venue can be simply looked up. Gone are the days of figuring out our own routes. As Google Maps and similar mapping technologies become more accessible and commonplace through the proliferation of smartphones and computers, they will forever change our relationship to mobility and the infrastructure of travel.
Image from Wikimedia Commons. Available from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Google_Maps_Logo.svg [Accessed 6 February 2017]
Sarah Green , Penny Harvey , and Hannah Knox , “Scales of Place and Networks: An Ethnography of the Imperative to Connect through Information and Communications Technologies,” Current Anthropology 46, no. 5 (December 2005): 805-826.