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How digital is making maps personal

Can technology give us the power us to cast aside traditional maps and find our own routes to meaning? Situationism enthusiast Matt Gilbert looks at some of the latest projects and technologies that are putting the user back on the map

Humans have always tried to interpret and understand the world through maps, and digital and mobile technology has made locating ourselves easier than ever. Anyone with access to the internet, a smartphone or Sat-Nav can, with the flick of a finger, consume detailed mapping information – provided there’s network coverage where you’re standing.

One tap can pull up satellite, street and conventional views, another lets you delve into further layers of data, telling you what you can see, do and buy nearby. The problem is, no map ever tells the truth – or at least, not the whole of it. Whether you get your map from a rum-soaked pirate, Ordnance Survey, Google or TomTom, all of the information it contains is partial. Someone else, often a corporation or government, has chosen what goes in and what’s left out. But what if we could use this technology to create a different kind of map? A highly personal map that grew and shrank, advanced and retreated as we lived out our lives?

What if we could create our own, highly individual, map of the world as only we see it?

Artists and philosophers have long been attracted to this kind of redrawing. One of the more influential is Guy Debord’s 1955 ‘Psychogeographic’ Map of Paris, in which the city is divided up into ‘zones of distinct atmospheres’, then cut up and rearranged to emphasize the different ambiences individuals could perceive in the same city.

Author Jonathan Raban’s 1974 book ‘Soft City’ is a fascinating exploration of the relation between the imagined, personal, “soft city” and the physical built environment – the “hard city”. Similarly, novelist Nicholas Royle’s ‘The Matter of the Heart‘, involves the notion of ‘Emotional Routes’: discrete ways around a city, adopted by individuals, based not on the most direct ways to travel between places, but on areas and streets that are meaningful to them, so that when taken they deliberately pass through places that resonate with the emotional charge of past encounters, events and situations.

Artist Stephen Walter offers a visual approach with his delightfully intricate maps of Liverpool and London, charting the cities not as birds-eye views of street plans, but as cultural and personal constructs, with highly detailed commentary, notes and drawings marking out the distinctive and special in different parts of each city.

In the digital space, the potential for exploring this territory is massive. There are some intriguing projects underway, from those supported by major scientific research institutions to individual artists. MIT Media Lab has developed Behavio, an open-source Android platform that turns smartphones into sensors. The software can be used by anyone to gather data from mobile usage to study their own behavioural trends and potentially those of entire communities. Open Street Map is an alternative to corporate maps, which hands people shared control of free geographic data and mapping that can be used in creative and experimental ways.

Questioning the way technology affects the way we view the world and ourselves is the web doc Bear 71. Made by Leanne Allison and Jeremy Mendes for the National Film Board of Canada, this allows people to follow a grizzly bear on its journeys around Banff National Park, Canada, via an interactive map linked to footage taken from a series of remote trail cameras. The project premiered at this year’s Sundance festival with a live installation, co-created by Lance Weiler, which mixed facial detection software, augmented reality, motion sensors, wireless trail-cam QR codes, projection and data visualization to deliver the experience.

Finally a project that takes us back to Guy Debord, who may well have delighted in the potential of digital technology to play with ideas of space and perception. His theories – specifically the Letterist International and Situationist concept of the dérive- a random, or unplanned journey through an urban space – inform an art project called Drift. Developed by Justin Langlois and Broken City Lab, Drift is a mobile tool to help you get lost in familiar places. To my mind a true dérive should involve nothing but the walker’s imagination, but this assisted version looks fun, nevertheless.

We now have more ways than ever to record, track and share our place and movements in the world, from checking in to places we visit, to plotting and analysing runs or even counting how many stairs we’ve climbed. Could all this self-tracking help create a unique, emotional map for everyone, that morphs and changes according to the resonance particular places have for us at a given time? I’m not sure that something so mutable and personal could realistically be captured by a digital platform or app, but if someone develops the tools I’d be interested in finding out what my map looks like – and how it compares to everyone else’s.

For more of Matt Gilbert’s writing, see his blog:

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