Google Maps changed how it projects the world, and why it is so important.

in geography •  last month

If you haven't already discovered this new feature, you might want to go to Google Maps and zoom out a little. Hurray! Greenland is no longer as big as the entire continent of Africa! Until now Google used the Mercator projection as a way to display a sphere on the flat surface that is your screen. This projection has often been criticized because it distorts sizes of places a lot but Google kept using it since, although it distorts size, it manages to keep shapes more or less correct. And since you fluently have to zoom in and out around the globe, this has proved to be the easiest to work with. The only thing that changes when you navigate on this projection is the scale. And for Google Maps that is just a formality in the corner of the map. 

Current view of Google Maps when zoomed out. Have fun with the Dutch translations!

But 3d rendering is more common now then ever so by now it is a good idea to represent the surface of the globe as the shape it is (at least according to most recent evidence and consensus, Yes I'm looking at you flat-earthers).

But Sam, I hear you say, why is it such a big deal if Google Maps shows a globe rather than a projection of a globe? Hah! Here comes the interesting part.

Mental Maps

Ever since you were a kid, you created mental maps. In the beginning these are simple and can be described as: "If I go into that door, that room appears, and if I take a right at that building we see the house of Bobby...". But as you get exposed to more information and depictions of space, your mental map evolves, whether you like it or not. After a few more years you start to visualize your surroundings in your mental map and you view your world more like this:

Drawing from a child showing how it views the neighborhood. Strongly focused on social interactions (friends's houses) and common experiences (church, school, criminal mob's house). Illustration from the research of Freeman C. (2010).

In this stage distances are completely out of scale and also angles tend to be incorrect, but the basics is laid for a persons understanding of the world around him/her.

After more experiences a mental map can look more like this. This is the mental map of a grandfather who inspired a research on the topic. Edlund L. (2018)

After that, more information decides how this view is altered. Walking around, getting lost, driving with a map rather than GPS, showing interests in global news and other spatial information will expand this view but sadly many get stuck at this point as can be seen in this video.

I know this is just entertainment television showing the extremes, but I was surprised these extremes even existed.

The influence of Google Maps

So we have agreed that the information in your everyday lives further expands your mental map. I don't think any of you casually carries a globe in your back pocket for common conversations? Almost all commonly used depictions of the planet are on a flat map. Most people of course know that this is not the real planet, but the map inside your head is constantly confirmed to be flat. I can imagine that when you picture the path of an airplane you have a flat map in mind?

With Google Maps as the preferred navigation app for almost 70% of smartphone owners and the millions of desktop users their influence on people's mental maps is huge. A small change in representation of the map will influence, unconsciously billions of people. It might not seem like a big difference, but having a mental globe in stead of a mental map will increase understanding of geopolitics, how people try to manipulate you with map projections and so much more.

Conclusion

So yeah, I think this change is important. The mental map unconsciously influences our opinions and perspectives on the world and having this as accurate as possible can only improve understanding of actual problems such as climate change, certain political relations, logistics and so on. And Google, with the majority of the people using their products can have a major impact on how this mental map is shaped. Have your own opinion? I'd love to hear about it!

References:

Freeman, Claire. (2010). 2010 Freeman, C. Children’s neighbourhoods, social centres to ‘terra incognita’ Children’s Geographies, 8: 2. pp. 157 - 176. Children s Geographies. 8. 157.

 Lars-Erik Edlund (2018) Some reflections on mental maps, Journal of Cultural Geography, 35:2, 274-285, DOI: 10.1080/08873631.2017.1362934 

https://themanifest.com/app-development/popularity-google-maps-trends-navigation-apps-2018

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To be candid, until this exposition, I never realised the transition from the 2D flat shapes to 3D rendering. Definitely an unconscious influence. And for those criticisms, if it was just for navigations, I'd say the map did a great job; the shapes and size really didn't matter.

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Google Maps did indeed meet its purpose, but there is always room for improvement :D Thanks for passing by!