In 300 metres, turn left: a digital history of maps

In honour of the 15th anniversary of Google Maps, we explore all the ways we have learned to navigate the world by sight, smell and sound.

In honour of Google Maps' 15th anniversary, we explore all the ways in which maps help us navigate

Women study their map at the resting camp as they take part in the desert trek 'Rose Trip Maroc,' a female-oriented trek where teams of three must travel through the southern Moroccan Sahara desert with a compass, a map and a topographical reporter. (Jean-Philippe Ksiazek/AFP/Getty Images)

It's difficult to remember the pre-digital mapping era, when we didn't have near-constant access to a map of the world in our pockets. But Google Maps' 15th anniversary on Feb. 6 reminded us how recent that habit really is. 

Humans have been creating different types of maps for a very long time, however.

"We have prehistoric scratchings in caves which suggest that there's always been attempts by humans to understand their special environment. That's what a map does: a map somehow enables you to abstract the world out there," author Jerry Brotton told Spark host Nora Young in a 2012 interview.

In his book, The History of the World in 12 Maps, Brotton argues that maps are not simply a description of the world as it is, but rather a proposition about what the world might be. 

"A map can never properly represent the territory it claims to show you," he said. "It always has to make selections about what it puts on the map and what it leaves off the map."

In the book, Brotton argues that maps are not simply a description of the world as it is, but rather a proposition about what the world might be. (Portrait by Dirk Bader/Penguin Books/CBC )

Brotton's argument applies to digital maps as well, as shown by last year's controversy over Apple Maps referring to Crimea as part of Russia, while the coastal peninsula's national identity has been at the centre of an international dispute since the territory's annexation by Russia in 2014.

Even on an individual scale, we can save ourselves a lot of hassle with some healthy map skepticism. While the software is always improving, we occasionally get humbled by our reliance on Google Maps by getting stuck in the middle of a field while looking for a shortcut.

In 2009, the non-existent town of Argleton in England was at the centre of discussions around trap streets. (©2009 Google - Imagery ©2009 DigitalGlobe, Infoterra Ltd & Bluesky, GeoEye, The Geoinformation Group)

And, to cap it all off, you might come across a fake place on a digital map. 

There are so-called "trap streets" created by cartographers to protect the map from being copied without permission. As Spark contributor Edward Birnbaum explained in a 2012 interview, these "intentional falsehoods" rarely show up except in court during copyright disputes.

However, he said these fake places can create strange spinoffs, such as services that claim to deliver to these locations.

"If it's on the map, it will show up in all sorts of strange searches," Birnbaum said.

Scouts, scents and sounds

Beyond being a more convenient, detailed version of an analog map, modern digital maps change how we find our way, and how we understand ourselves spatially in relation to the world around us. 

Some digital maps, like Google Street View, can even help us connect with nature. In 2018, Nick Lund created a Facebook group called "Google Street View Birding" to get fellow birders to identify avian species captured by Google's car-mounted cameras. 

In a 2018 interview with Spark, Lund said that Street View birding allows avian enthusiasts to pursue their favourite pastime without leaving their desks, and investigate wildlife in places they wouldn't be able to visit in real life.

Beyond this ability to visit far-off places from the comfort of our homes, tools like Google Street View can act like personal time machines.

Red-billed gulls in a parking lot in Paraparaumu, New Zealand, captured on Google Street View. (Nick Lund/Google Street View)

For Brittany Piovesan, a virtual stroll down memory lane held a special significance. While exploring her childhood home near Ottawa on Street View in 2010, she spotted her mother, who had died six weeks earlier.

"Sitting on the back porch is where she spent most of her time," Piovesan said. "That's quite obviously what this picture is: it's my mom, in her pink pants, leaning back in a wheelchair, reading. It's really this perfect picture of my mom."

"I realize though the picture won't be there forever. It is kind of a nice way of being able to go back and see my mom whenever I want." 

Our sense of place isn't limited to street signs and directions. There are a variety of maps that use other modalities — like smells or sounds — to describe locations. 

One of them, Smelly Maps, allows you to navigate based on the scents you might encounter along the way. 

Daniele Quercia, who helped create the maps, said that these "smellscapes" demonstrate that technologies can promote values besides efficiency. So instead of just getting you from point A to point B, Smelly Maps can also clue you in on the most pleasant-smelling routes.

Smelly Map of New York, designed by Rossano Schifanella and attributed to OSM and CartoDB. (CartoDB)

As Brotton mentioned, maps help us understand our surrounding environment. This can also mean understanding other humans by the way they sound. 

Linguist Rick Aschmann maps sound patterns of dialects in different regions using an online map of North American English dialects.

"If you listen to the sound samples, that can help simplify things because you can hear how somebody speaks in a particular place," he told Spark in 2011. 

Aschmann scoured YouTube to find the clips he could use as examples for the map. And as the project has caught on, people have begun to send him their own examples.

Maps are manifestations of a natural human desire to understand the world around us. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

"Sometimes I cannot be sure if a certain person represents the local dialect, but local people are better able to do that. I can use the information that I have, but sometimes they write in and say, 'People here don't talk like that,'" he said.

Thanks to these contributions, the dialect map, like the bird-watching Facebook group, has become a communal project that allows people to work together. 

"I don't think there's enough of that sometimes in life," Lund said. "This is a way for people to have a bit of a challenge, explore all parts of the globe, and just have a good time together."

Listen to our special Maps episode by clicking the 'Listen' button at the top of the page.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?