Google Me to the Moon

Discovery once meant sailing right up to the edges of the known world, clutching maps whose imagery stopped cold at the frontiers, then venturing into unexplored terrain beyond. We're running out of places to conquer, forcing us to delve into the microscopic and the faraway, searching for new lands in the depths of the sea and the outer reaches of the galaxies. Digital maps, GPS and Google Earth (which now includes the oceans, sky and outer space) have greatly extended the range of armchair explorers, allowing them to plunge into an undersea abyss, stroll around Mars or Marseille or visit every crater on the Moon on a computer screen.


Detail of 1865 topographical map of New York City.

The old way of mapping: detail of a 1865 topographical map of New York City. (Wikimedia Commons)

Printed maps required a traveler to possess a certain degree of graphic literacy; decoding and understanding the visual language of scale, icons, symbols, color systems and abbreviations took a little work. Plotting a trip held few surprises, except maybe for the pleasant realization that a destination was much closer than you thought, or the shock of finding a mountain range squarely in your path. Expectations were either met or exceeded upon arrival, when you first encountered the sights and smells and unfamiliar beds of your destination.

On computer maps, surprise often comes down to: what the heck will I get if I click on that icon? Their graphic systems are harder to decipher with consistency, since clicking on a single icon may lead to multiple unexpected results. The experience is by turns frustrating and delightful, introducing an absurd element of discovery to the cartographic realm. Along with the promise of knowledge, guidance and entertainment comes visual clutter and disappointment, prospects raised and hopes dashed.


Aerial view of AIGA's New York office on Google Earth.

Today: an aerial view of the AIGA National Design Center in New York on Google Earth.

The wealth of icons scattered everywhere atop Google Earth's view of the planet offers up a tantalizing amount of additional visual information and text, anchored directly to its physical coordinates. Like the litter that fills our landscapes and oceans, there is so much linked data; if you make the icons visible for every available option in Google Earth's Layers palette, you almost can't see the terrain. Activate one of the inscrutable blue squares on the Panaramio layer and a glorious photo might pop up. Then, alas, you also might get a 3-D rendering of the location. Instead of an image of a grand French château, you may be presented with something reminiscent of a video game. You could see a random detail shot of the locale, or an image of someone's prized new car dominating the foreground, the scenery becoming an incidental backdrop for conspicuous consumption. It can start to feel like a relative's vacation slideshow, browsing through many images that tell you very little.


Bird's eye view of New York as rendered in 1854.

Aerial view of New York City from 1854. (Norman B. Leventhal Map Center, Boston Public Library)

On the flip side, the digital discovery process is often tremendously rewarding as well, leading to happy surprises from the highbrow to the low. An icon positioned near the front door of the Prado, in Madrid, leads to a gallery of 14 masterpieces scanned in such high definition that zooming in reveals the texture of the canvas in razor focus. When I clicked a random icon in the ocean off the western coast of Panama, it called up an irresistible BBC video about strange floating crabs. Who knew crabs could be charming? (Or that they float?)

In addition to the power to fly through earth and space, digital maps allow you to play with time. As far back in history as satellite data is available, the images can be called up to see what a locale used to look like. It's even possible for the past to coexist in the same time frame as the present: superimposing views of new buildings onto old maps of cities creates a palimpsest of centuries compressed onto your screen. Speaking of time, just rotating the planet and zooming in and out of views has a hypnotic quality, and an hour can pass before you know it. This may not be a boon to good work habits, but it can be a welcome escape if you're chained to your desk and need a lunch break.


Clicking on a French chateau in Panoramio yields both photography and CGI renderings.

Click on a map of Sully-sur-Loire, France, in Panoramio and see both photography and CGI renderings of the château.

Traveling through digital geographic environments is nothing like being there in the flesh, of course, but virtual exploration is ideal for people who aren't physically able to travel or to reach places—micro or macro—where ordinary humans can't go. A large part of the appeal is falling in love with a real landscape during a virtual tour, walking through the seductive images, seeing what lies around corners, how the sunlight hits faraway cities, without leaving your own home. You just might be inspired to book a flight to see the place for yourself (and snap your own pictures to upload and share). The online experience can seem curiously real on its own, too; at times it has a confusing near-authentic quality. When I got lost undersea looking for the wreckage of the Titanic and all I could see on my screen was a flat blue field of ocean, I felt a moment of panic, as if I were running out of air from holding my breath beneath the waves. If you are prone to carsickness, as I am, it is very possible you will get queasy during Google Earth's speedy flyovers. I can't read a map in a moving car and found that I have to avert my eyes from the screen when I blast from one continent to another on a digital journey. Art imitates life.

It takes more than a day to fly from New York City to Tokyo, so I wanted to test the duration of a Google Earth flyover—1 second? 3 seconds? I'm not sure if this was a programmer's idea of a joke, but when I typed in “get directions,” Google Earth earnestly provided a cross-country auto route (turn right on Canal Street, make a left at the Holland Tunnel) to the West Coast, where I was then instructed to “kayak across the Pacific Ocean (6,635 miles).” Estimated travel time: 36 days, 4 hours. The age of exploration lives on.