Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | Google Maps is easing travel but ruining the journey

Here’s a simple solution to stop nations battling over border disputes: Accept Google Maps, the world’s most-commonly used navigation tool that began life as a C++ desktop program in 2003 at a Sydney-based startup, Where 2 Technologies, as the final arbitrator of national boundaries. In fact, the platform, which has so far mapped more than 220 countries with information on 200 million places and businesses, is already doing its bit.

A recent report in The Washington Post says that Google and other mapmakers ensure the world’s borders look different depending on where someone is viewing them from. Effectively, therefore, the 72-year-old struggle between India and Pakistan over who owns which part of Kashmir has been entirely resolved by the simple expedient of WYWSWYG (What you want to see is what you get). As the report says: “From Argentina to the United Kingdom to Iran, the world’s borders look different depending on where you’re viewing them from. That’s because Google —and other online mapmakers—simply change them."

For old-time users of physical maps, this should come as no surprise. We’ve all seen foreign books and magazines where maps of Asia or India have been stamped “the external boundaries of India depicted on this map are neither accurate nor authentic". As the Post story says, local laws call for adherence to the designated authority. In India, that’s the Survey of India.

Yet, there is a big difference between those warnings of yore and the present digital flexibility. Fifteen years to the month that Google launched the brothers Lars and Jens Rasmussen’s idea of a dynamic map application in the commercial space, it now controls our mobile lives in ways that might once have been considered criminal or creepy, or both. Not only do we follow driving and navigating instructions issued by Google Maps while we are commuting, we are also served a monthly notice of all the places we have visited. Called Timeline, it gives excruciating details of all the cities one has travelled to, places one has been to, as well as kilometres walked and spent in transit. It’s the price you have to pay for keeping your location history on. Old-fashioned stalking doesn’t even begin to describe what’s going on.

Yet, what would we do without it? Digital maps aren’t just a navigational tool. They are an integral part of our planning for a trip whether for business or pleasure. By predicting how crowded a bus or a subway train will be (a feature not yet available in India) or which bike-sharing locations have available bikes, they have added a whole new dimension to our travel.

Should we then draw the line at the redrawing of national borders based on location? The correct on-ground position would be to have completely different markings for undisputed and disputed borders. But, who in this era of hyper nationalism would have the nerve to do that? In any case, it is fair to say that Google isn’t in the business of tip-toeing over diplomatic landmines. China, for instance, has a border dispute with virtually each of its neighbours, so what is a map to do? It helps then that Google Maps isn’t officially available in China, though, of course, every hacker worth his salt can get through the country’s much vaunted firewall to see how Aksai Chin has been represented.

It is the nature of new-age digital startups to provide customers the services they are seeking by using the very data that is embedded in them. Google isn’t the only company that uses such data on its users’ identity to alter, as it were, her experience.

There has always been the suspicion among users that ride-sharing companies like Uber use information on the battery level on their phone while they are booking a cab to push surge-pricing of a fare. Uber and other such companies have always denied this charge, though they have accepted that such data is available to them and is used to place the app in battery-saving mode, but not to play on the human tendency to grab even a pricey ride on offer if the phone is going to go off. Nor is this restricted to gullible customers like me and you. A March 2017 investigation by The New York Times revealed how Uber used a tool called Greyball for collecting data to identify and circumvent law-enforcement officials who were trying to clamp down on some of its illegal services. The program allowed the company to serve a fake version of the app, populated with ghost cars, to officers who had hailed a cab and were studying its pattern of movement on their phones.

It is standard practice too for news sites to offer different views of the same news item, and because they choose news sources depending on who’s reading, you often get the opposite view from someone else. And it’s usually one that conforms to your own perspectives and beliefs.

Quantum theory says that the existence of electrons depends on where the observer is. Powerful apps like Google Maps may well be creating a Matrix-like make-believe world in which facts change based on who’s looking. But at a time when reality itself is mostly out for lunch, we do get what we want.

My only complaint is that the constant stream of road instructions that it spews forth while I am driving has almost put an end to my budding career as a crooner. After all, Chaudhvin Ka Chaand Ho doesn’t quite sound the same when it is constantly interrupted by commands like “in 400 metres take the third exit at the next roundabout.

Sundeep Khanna is former executive editor of Mint

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