Can Google Maps set us free? From derivé to (collective) intelligence

By: Roman Tol
On: November 25, 2007
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About Roman Tol
Roman Tol is an Ecommerce specialist. Both techical and as a marketeer. Hands on and with vision. Keyword: Innovation.


Dérive is a notion used by Guy Debord in an attempt to convince readers to revisit the way they looked at urban spaces. The concept means to aimlessly walk, or drift, through the city streets being guided by the momentum and space itself. A modern practice of Dérive is roaming the streets of your city through the satellite photographs in Google Maps and more recently Google Street View; a new feature of Google Maps that allows one to view and navigate high-resolution, 360 degree street level images of various cities (in the US). Google’s maps distinguish themselves from traditional printed maps in the sense that the user is able to interact. Besides zooming on location, the user is able to demand additional information with concern to a particular spot. This information is offered by parties collaborating with Google, as well as information from databases which Google has power over. Google Maps became vastly popular when it integrated satellite photographs (and photographs taken with airplanes) in its online maps; beside a map in conventional design containing information on demand, the map now presents a realistic bird eye view allowing the user to rediscover familiar places (such as his/her own house) from an unfamiliar perspective.

The basic premise in Debord’s theory of Dérive is that people are trapped in the practices of everyday life, by looking at the city by following their emotions they can break with their daily route, routine and enclosed space. Cities in fact are designed in ways to direct and control its publics. Cities are complex structures in which movement and mobility is managed by its plan, for instance road signs tell one where to go at what speed and where to not go between what times, when to stop and when to continue. But also the architecture controls the flow of people by means of the way in which certain areas, streets, or buildings resonate with states of mind, inclinations, and desires. Debord argues that people should explore their environment without preconceptions, in order to create a better understanding of one’s nature; as one becomes aware of its location, one can value and comprehend his or her existence. The idea is that people built forth from their insights and seek out reasons for movement other than those for which an environment was designed. Bringing an inverted angle to the world can make people assign new meanings to familiar places, produce new forms of social interaction and make public space a place where one stops to look.

This idea of (re)discovering familiar places can be compared to taking a boat tour through ones own city. The roads beside the eight canals in the center of Amsterdam are passageways I personally frequently travel through; however, when passing through them by boat, the well-known monumental facades in the vicinity of the canals seemed foreign to me from a different angle. Similarly the satellite photographs in Google Maps changes meaning and memories attached to common places; it gives the user an experience of re-familiarity. Street View on the other hand draws on the recognizable element; the photographs are taken from street level and thereby rediscovering is substituted for virtual sightseeing. The user can now wander through New York while staying at home; moreover, the user can zoom and alter the view at any time. Instead of looking up the fastest route or determining ones location, the function seems to have shifted in the direction of roaming and aimless wandering.

In addition modern maps are coupled to databases consisting of location bound information; possibly delivering the user knowledge and ultimately awareness. A wide variety of peer-created extensions are freely available augmenting the information and increasing the amount of knowledge, such as the Wikipedia extension – which provides a sense of temporal accuracy in Google Earth because information is provided about history and coming into being of a particular place, complete with specific dates, adding to the hyper-real situation. The practice of contributing to the medium opposes with traditional one-way media institutions. Google Earth allows users to act upon their creative skills and knowledge by offering possibilities to co-create the product and make it available to anyone, also outside the community. Google Maps API is a tool which users of Google Earth can use to include whichever information to existing maps offered by Google. In addition Google offers users SketchUp, similar to Google Maps API SketchUp is a free application with which users can add content to maps presented by Google, however with SketchUp the user can do this in 3D (for example a model of ones own house). Via Google 3D Warehouse the models can be uploaded and made available for all users of Google Earth. Currently maps are circulating in 3D or data tips containing personal information or photographs taken by users from a street level (which consequently changes the perspective of the original design). Information visualization tools such as maps enable greater understanding of reality, our society, life, and in short our existence. The accessibility and popularity of dynamic digital maps should make academics and interaction designers wonder how new ways of wandering can educate, emancipate, and enlighten the masses.

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