Justin O'Beirne

Justin O'Beirne of San Francisco, California. Essays, projects, and contact information.

✍️ ESSAY / OCTOBER 2015
The Universal Map
Cartography‘s Most Important Moment is Rapidly Approaching

Just thirty years ago—and for most of human history—a cartographer would make a map and hope that maybe a few thousand or so people would ever use it before it went out of date. Apart from a handful of atlases and classroom maps, most maps had small, local audiences, went out of date quickly, and were often difficult to read and understand—let alone share.

Fast forward to today, and cartography has since undergone a number of profound changes:

  • An unprecedented level of detail is now available to the average person, for little or no cost. The same map literally shows every human settlement in the world at every scale, from the world’s largest cities to its tiniest neighborhoods and hamlets. Every country. Every city. Every road. All mapped in exquisite detail. Moreover, maps increasingly show every business open today—an interactive, visual yellow pages for the whole world. And add to that imagery, street view, and live transit and traffic. No one has ever had access to this much detail, for so cheaply, until now.
     
  • Maps are now always up to date. Errors are corrected in hours and minutes, instead of months and years—and new roads and businesses are added instantly. Unlike the paper maps of thirty years ago, today’s maps never expire.
     
  • Maps now fit us, regardless of who or where we are. Foreign lands are presented in our own language, and we can easily and endlessly adjust scales, orientations, dimensions, and even time. We have day mode, night mode, and even basic personalization. And every corner of the globe is presented in the same style, and every map feature is made to be so intuitive, that there’s never a need for a map key. (Google and Apple Maps don’t even have one.) Thirty years ago, we adjusted ourselves to maps; now, maps adjust to us.
     
  • Maps are integrated with robust search & routing. No more looking up the coordinates of an obscure town or street in an index. No more sitting down and painstakingly planning routes before you leave. Find any place in the world in milliseconds. Calculate any route—be it by walking, driving, or even flying—with unprecedented ease.
     
  • Advanced sensors keep us apprised of our current location, 24 hours a day. Now, we’re never lost.

These are all profound technical changes, 10x improvements that are hugely impactful in their own right. But there’s an even deeper, more profound cultural change seemingly on the horizon:

FOR THE FIRST TIME IN HUMAN HISTORY, THE MAJORITY OF THE WORLD MIGHT SOON BE USING THE SAME MAP.

Think of how deeply profound this is.

I was struck by all this as I was reading about the recent refugee crisis in Europe. Refugees from some of poorest, most dysfunctional places on Earth are using the same map that San Franciscans use to navigate to Mountain View every day. And all the while, print maps have become artifacts hung on living room and boardroom walls, valued more for their aesthetics than their utility.

What a difference thirty years makes.

There’s a saying amongst photographers that the best camera is the one that’s always with you. And the same goes for cartography: the best map is the one that’s always with you. And thanks to modern mobile devices, today’s best and most popular maps are with everyone, all of the time.

In 2012, Google announced that Google Maps had over a billion monthly active users. That’s 1 out of every 7 people on Earth. Three years later, that number is even larger.

As smartphone usage continues to explode, how long will it be until the majority of the world is using the same map? And what are the implications?

The modern cartographic revolution is far from over…

It’s just beginning.


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