The Problem with Google Maps

“The longest book I’ve ever read was 205 pages.”
—Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Bed of Procrustes (2010)

Jean-Louis Rheault, Montreal Mapmaker
Jean-Louis Rheault, Montreal Mapmaker

As I write this, I’m on the 485 bus with the kids of Wild Side Day Camp heading to the Morgan Arboretum. As usual, I checked with Google Maps for the best possible route; also as usual, I took Google’s advice. But it occurs to me now that Google Maps is wrong about pretty much everything. It tells you what the best route is based on time (measured in hours and minutes by a clock). But we are not clocks. A route that’s ugly and stressful but saves you 30 minutes is—existentially speaking—much longer than a beautiful scenic route that takes you an hour and a half. We experience time, like space, in a fluid fashion. Ten minutes in the oncologist’s waiting room can feel like four hours, whilst four hours chatting with a friend can feel like ten minutes. Likewise, reading 34 pages of a boring textbook can feel like it’s taking forever, whilst Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain—which I recently reread—flies by (despite the fact that it’s 720 pages long). As the philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb once quipped: “One of the shortest books I’ve ever read had 745 pages.”

My friend Jean-Louis Rheault is a mapmaker, a rather ingenious mapmaker (see JLR Maps). If you’ve ever worked with a Rheault map, you know that they’re remarkably user-friendly precisely because they do not measure space in miles and kilometers; they represent, instead, the fluid fashion in which we experience a space—the way a place feels. Until Google Maps learns how to think about space and time the way Jean-Louis Rheault thinks about space and time, they won’t know the first thing about the best route.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2015)

About John Faithful Hamer

John Faithful Hamer is a college professor who still can't swim, drive, or pay his bills on time. His sense of direction is notoriously unreliable, yet he'd love to tell you where to go. His lack of practical skills is astounding, and his inability to fix things is renowned, yet he'd love to tell you what to do. His mismanagement of time is legendary, as is his inability to remember appointments, yet he fancies himself a philosopher and would love to tell you how to live. He wouldn't survive in a state of nature, of that we can be sure; but he's doing quite well in the big city, which has always been a refuge for the ridiculous, a haven for the helpless, and a friend to the frivolous.

2 thoughts on “The Problem with Google Maps

  1. Jean-Louis is a map-maker. If only I would have known when we met. If there is anything I absolutely love, it’s a good map. A different map. A useful map. Geography, Demography, Topography, Cultural, etc etc. This may come as an odd thing to say, but when I was a child I use to want to be a mapmaker… and there was one sitting right in front of me Saturday!


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