Google's Michael Jones on How Maps Became Personal

In the past few years, the map has transformed from a static, stylized portrait of the Earth to a dynamic, interactive conversation. (An extended version of an interview from the January/February 2013 issue.)

Google Maps

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?

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, inter-active conversation about your use of the Earth.

I think that's officially the Big Change, and it's already happened, rather than being ahead.

So what might still happen?

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.

Isn't this just like the voice in the car GPS telling you, annoyingly, where to turn?

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, every-where, 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.

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?

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.

Looking at the huge changes in mapping over the past decade, which parts were hardest, from a technical view? I'm wondering which were most "magical" from the perspective of those of you on the inside, versus what those on the outside might notice when we turn on our computers or smartphones.

Well, there are technical advances that people probably don't even realize were new and different.

For example, here at Google, we invented the notion of an interactive online map that you can drag on the screen. MapQuest invented the idea of clicking on buttons to go north, south, east, and west. We had the idea of moving smoothly, and I think that is probably the most copied patent in the world at this point.

I think the notion of seeing the Earth in imagery is something that secret spy agencies and generals in the military have always liked doing. But as far as everybody doing that--being able to see where the hotel is, find out if it's really on the beach, or looking at houses to see whether they're close to a neighborhood park or churches--that notion that we could bring the entire planet to every human is a pretty big change.

Accessing that technology was actually a political accomplishment. President Clinton signed a bill to approve satellites for commercial use. That was a democratization of images of the planet that we took advantage of to say, "Hey, we can buy pictures now. Let's set up a company to make these pictures available to everybody."

Of course, there was also the rise of the smartphone. I would say that what makes smartphones smart, in large measure, is their sense of location. Their awareness of your location becomes a part of any question you ask--an implicit part of the question--and that makes them able to seem insightful, because they can tell you about restaurants near you, and taxicabs near you, and even traffic jams near you. You don't have to tell them where you are; they know where you are. They're smart in that sense, and that's only possible because of the GPS system up in the sky, because of known locations of Wi-Fi devices located all around the world. These are technologies that play together to make this new possibility happen. Putting it all together seemed a hard thing.

I'd like to ask about a different kind of sociopolitical consequence of the new kinds of mapping. People say that the first-ever photo of the entire Earth, from space, created a different kind of environmental consciousness. Do you think that the current revolution in mapping and views of the Earth will have any similar effect?

My father is in his 80s. He wanted to know more about what I do, so I recently showed him Google's underwater Street View. [This is an aspect of Google Earth that shows reefs, seamounts, and other underwater features in the oceans.] We dove in the water and we were basically swimming along. We stopped and zoomed in, looked at turtles, looked at fish. We went down under a big reef and we could see a tunnel in there, and there were fish resting in the tunnel.

After a while he said, "Son, this is so beautiful." He's never been scuba diving, but he said, "This is so beautiful. I just can't believe how beautiful this is." And I said, "Well, Dad, we chose beautiful places because most of the corals near islands around the world are already dead. They look like old concrete. No fish, just dead."

He almost cried. He stared at me with a "What has the world come to?" kind of look, and we talked for a while about that. And so he was brought to an awareness of the grotesque damage that's happening worldwide due to the ocean acidification that follows from the externalities of the way we live as a human race right now. It was powerful for him because he could personally experience the ocean in a way that, with his mobility challenges, he's never going to see by scuba diving. Yet he felt what people who have experienced the sea know to be true and care about.

I believe that only this kind of understanding leads to activism, whether it's a passive activism of a vote or an active activism of changing your lifestyle to protect the world.