Michael Jones, whose official title at Google is chief technology advocate, was a co-founder of Keyhole, one of the first companies to offer online, high-resolution satellite views of much of the Earth. In 2004, Google bought Keyhole, enlisted its executive staff, and used its technology as the basis for Google Earth. Here, Jones talks with James Fallows about what’s next in mapping, why new technology will change travel, and how a billion people learned to love geography.
James Fallows: The entire concept of a “map” seems radically different from even a decade ago. It used to be something in a book or on a wall; now it’s something you carry around on your smartphone. Which changes have mattered most? And what further changes should we be ready for?
Michael Jones: The major change in mapping in the past decade, as opposed to in the previous 6,000 to 10,000 years, is that mapping has become personal.
It’s not the map itself that has changed. You would recognize a 1940 map and the latest, modern Google map as having almost the same look. But the old map was a fixed piece of paper, the same for everybody who looked at it. The new map is different for everyone who uses it. You can drag it where you want to go, you can zoom in as you wish, you can switch modes—traffic, satellite—you can fly across your town, even ask questions about restaurants and directions. So a map has gone from a static, stylized portrait of the Earth to a dynamic, interactive conversation about your use of the Earth.
I think that’s officially the Big Change, and it’s already happened, rather than being ahead.
JF: So what might still happen?
MJ: The dialogue with the map is becoming much more personal. You can imagine that in the future, if you have a wearable computer, the dialogue will become even more intimate: you will see a continuous stream of guidance and information, and no one else will even know that you’re being advised.
For instance, right now people walk around looking at directions on phones. In the future, the phone will signal you—go left or straight ahead—in words or sounds in your ear, or visually through your glasses, so you can just look where you’re going and walk. It’ll be like you’re a local everywhere you go. You’ll know your way through the back alleys and hutongs of Beijing, you’ll know your way all around Paris even if you’ve never been before. Signs will seem to translate themselves for you. This kind of extra-smartness is coming to people. Effectively, people are about 20 IQ points smarter now because of Google Search and Maps. They don’t give Google credit for it, which is fine; they think they’re smarter, because they can rely on these tools. It’s one reason they get so upset if the tools are inaccurate or let them down. They feel like a fifth of their brain has been taken out.
JF: Isn’t this just like the voice in the car GPS telling you, annoyingly, where to turn?
MJ: It’s more. The Google “geo” team grew from two seeds—Keyhole, which led to Google Earth, and two brothers who founded what is now Google Maps. We’ve worked to invent the most comprehensive, authoritative, useful mapping solutions that humans can build, and I think we’ve been pretty successful at that. So I would consider this like Dr. Johnson’s compilation of a dictionary of the English language, or maybe the rise of the encyclopedia. It’s the creation of a universal reference work, reflecting a lot of labor and great expense, that everybody can rely on.
If you think about Dr. Johnson’s dictionary from the point of view of English literature, you might say, “Well, Johnson—he did a dictionary.” But what else could you do with words on a piece of paper? Maybe you could write mysteries, or comedy, or adventure stories. You can do a lot of things with the words in his dictionary.
We think there will be a new literature from the mapping dictionary that’s now being built. There’s an Android app we’ve released called Field Trip. You download it, and it says, “I don’t want to bother you, so how often should I talk to you?” You tell it “all the time” or “rarely” or whatever, and then you turn off your phone and put it in your pocket and don’t think about it again.
Then when you’re walking around, say in Washington, D.C., the phone will buzz and say, “You are 25 feet from an accurate map of 2,700 solar objects. If you go over there to the Einstein Memorial, you can see them.” Or you might be walking down the street and it will beep and say, “The rowhouse one block to the left is the No. 1–rated Greek restaurant within 500 miles,” or maybe: “Around the corner behind you is where a scene from your favorite movie was filmed.” It is using your location to search in a database of “interesting things,” and it learns what kinds of things you care about. It means having your life enlightened by travel knowledge, everywhere, or getting to walk around with local experts who know your tastes, wherever in the world you go.
We’ve already seen this transition in mobile maps. All those fears and anxieties in travel—what happens if I get lost someplace where I don’t speak the language? If you have a mobile phone with Google Maps, you can go anywhere on the planet and have confidence that we can give you directions to get to where you want to go safely and easily. No human ever has to feel lost again.
JF: You travel the world, talking with governments and citizens about the implications of mapping. What has surprised you about the effects of this technology that you and your colleagues helped create?
MJ: For me, as an engineer, the concept of “political truth” among some governments remains alien. For instance, our maps show that there is a dispute about whether a body of water should be called the Persian Gulf or the Arabian Gulf. We draw a borderline in yellow if that’s where neighboring nations agree it should be. We draw it in red if there’s disagreement. Some governments are so devoted to their version of reality that they are outraged that we report that there is a dispute. I find that brittleness unexpected.
A better surprise has to do with the interest of people in geography. Geography was a class that few embraced in school. In elementary school, they make you color in maps to show where the oceans and continents are. And yet, when we were starting Keyhole, we read a report that one-fifth of American elementary-school students couldn’t point out the Pacific Ocean on a map.
We thought, “This is wrong. We’re going to fix this problem. We’re going to make learning about the Earth fun, instead of boring.” We were saying, “No, we’re not going to make a game out of the Earth, but we are going to make discovering the Earth a joy”—like you’re dating a planet and you want to know it, to hear all about its past and hopes. That’s what we did: we made something immersive and engaging and personal. You can fly to your home—fly to your parents’ home—and remember the time you snuck out in the backyard and did something you shouldn’t do, or the place where you had a first kiss, or the place you got married.
What we didn’t expect was how many people would share that joy with us. A billion people have installed Google Earth on their computer.
Whenever people complain about Google Maps and Google Earth, they ask, “Why is my backyard blurry?” or “Why is that tree still there, even though we cut it down last year?” They’re angry that it’s not a perfect planetary mirror, when eight years ago only a few of us even imagined it was possible.
This is the latest installment in a series of conversations about the future, moderated in alternate issues by James Fallows and Alexis Madrigal. For an extended transcript of this and other conversations, visit theatlantic.com/thefuture.