On the design of geographic interfaces: verisimilitude -vs- subjective experiences

Last night I attended Michael Naimark’s interesting lecture at the Rotterdam Film festival. This year’s edition of the festival wants to broaden the discussion on ‘screen culture’, and Naimark took up on this theme by focusing on maps and globes as important elements of our contemporary screen culture.

Naimark talked about two different directions that map-making is taking. The first is perhaps illustrated best by Google Earth. Google is trying to construct a photo-realistic version of the globe. It does so by sending out ‘spycars’ to photograph street scenes. Google also takes in user generated pictures through its Panoramio-service. The catch is that only certain photo’s uploaded to Panoramio will make it to Google Earth. The acceptance policy explains that the following pictures will not be eligible for inclusion on their virtual globe:

  • People posing, portraits or persons as main subject. Exception: photos where people are an unavoidable part of the place
  • Events: exhibitions, concerts, parades…
  • Car, plane or any machine as the main subject. Same exception as above.
  • Pet or animal as the main subject. Exception: animals in their natural environment showing the background.
  • Flowers and details of plants. Exception: forests, big trees and photos that show the background.

In other words, most of the things that make an abstract geographic space into a lived place are excluded. The goal is to make a more or less neutral base-interface. (Although of course on top of that, people can add subjective layers and maps through mymaps.google or other services.)

Naimark himself co-initiated an experiment called viewfinder to find a different approach: how can the objective reality of Google Maps be turned into a platform for more subjective experiences of those spaces. Or to put it in his words: ‘How to seamlessly Flickerize Google Earth’.

I think this experiment does bring out some interesting questions: If maps are becoming one of our prime interfaces, should they be as neutral or at least approach verisimilitude as much as possible? Or should we design purposely to include more subjective experiences, to include a sense of a lived, more visceral space into these maps?

(For more on screen culture at the Filmfestival, see also my article on urban screens at the Rotterdam Filmfestival)

Martijn de Waal
Martijn de Waal (1972) is a writer, researcher and strategist, working in the field of digital media and (urban) culture. He has worked with and for various clients and organizations such as The Netherlands Architecture Institute, Open Society Foundation, The Architectural League of New York, Lift@Home, Kitchen Budapest, The Mondriaan Foundation and Dutch Public Broadcasting. He is part of the New Media, Public Sphere and Urban Culture research group at the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Groningen, and connected to the department of mediastudies at the University of Amsterdam. In 2009 he was a visiting scholar at MIT's Center for Future Civic Media.