Environmental science, traveling, and the sociology of the unraveling American dream.


If you're looking for more about me, I'm pretty much hanging out over at my livejournal these days. I use this account for commenting on other people's blogs.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Getting there

Three weeks ago, my parents asked me about how I navigate in cities I don't know. It's a fair question, given that I generally spend at least one or two days out of the week wandering around a city I've never been to before. "Mapquest," I said. "Seriously. If it weren't for the technical difficulties involved, you'd be ending up with it as a son-in-law."

Little did I know that under a month later, I'd be throwing Mapquest over for a newer love: sleeker, sexier, and undeniably more powerful. Google Maps. First off, in good Google fashion, the search functions and route maps are far more intuitive. Rather than forcing the user to use certain boxes for certain input (address? start? end? zip? city?) the program selects what sense it can make out of the user-provided input in one box. Want Thai restaurants in Cambridge, MA? You got it. A search on "thai cambridge mass" pops up the names and addresses on a sidebar, with the locations mapped. It's like a strange combination of MapQuest and YellowPages that's been made far more intuitive than either.

(Although I will note, sadly, that even Google hasn't gotten the idea of adding street numbers -- only the fragile Maporama has seen the light on this function, which really can be quite useful.)

The real potential of GoogleMaps is a tad more disturbing, though. The business listings aren't the only ones mapped, and they aren't the only pages searched. A search on my father's name and hometown pulled up his business as the first hit -- a business that isn't listed under his name, and isn't listed in his hometown, a business that doesn't have a homepage of its own. One reference on another page listing the two in the same place pulled them up in a directory search. Likewise, while my home address didn't get pulled up, several of my known associates and their addresses did. And in the end, I have to wonder: which is scarier? A tool for listing my home address, or a tool for mapping out where I go and who I'm connected to?