Much of the controversy surrounding Google Maps has centered on relatively concrete concerns like privacy and data gathering. But in a piece for The Guardian, Oliver Burkeman argues that digital mapping’s long-term impacts may fundamentally change the way we perceive and interact with the world around us. Aimless wandering, for instance, could easily become an antiquated practice, rendering Baudelaire’s flâneur as extinct as the dodo bird. And wouldn’t an ever-aggressive data onslaught further disconnect us from our environment?
Not every cartographer agrees with Burkeman’s hypothetical, arguing that Google Maps actually makes it easier for us to wander and “get lost,” since reorienting ourselves has become that much easier. But Burkeman’s core concern is more seismic in nature — namely, the fact that companies like Google (and, soon, Apple) have essentially assumed control over how we “see” the world, whether through digital maps or augmented reality. “What happens when we come to see the world, to a significant extent, through the eyes of a handful of big companies based in California?” Burkeman writes. “You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist, or an anti-corporate crusader, to wonder about the subtle ways in which their values and interests might come to shape our lives.”