Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Another Casualty of the Digital Age

There is a certain irony that the morning after Memorial Day should bring news of another significant departure, not of an individual but of a major artifact. The news was reported by Sam Zuckerman in the San Francisco Chronicle, who began his article with the following paragraphs:

The California State Automobile Association produced its first road map in 1909. It showed major highways in California and Nevada, and was sent free to all members.

Ninety-nine years later, San Francisco's CSAA is set to produce its last paper map, another victim of the shift to digital technology.

The auto club, which serves Northern California, Nevada and Utah, is phasing out its 12-person cartographic unit by year-end, the association said. Members will still be able to get paper maps at no charge, but they will be produced at AAA national headquarters in Heathrow, Fla.

This, of course, is just another example of an institution collapsing under the stress of trying to make economic ends meet. Since the world the Internet has made is a world of outsourcing, we are again confronted with the question of how important "proximity to the source" is to providing service that is both effective and efficient. However, as Zuckerman pointed out, this particular story is about more than outsourcing and proximity:

CSAA's exit from cartography is part of a technological transformation remaking the map field. Digital direction-finding tools, particularly Internet maps and in-car navigation systems, are drawing growing numbers of users at the expense of paper road maps.

In 2007, as members used more digital services, CSAA's demand for paper maps dropped 13 percent, Mack said. Meanwhile, use of the association's online TripTik Travel Planner has been growing at double-digit rates since it was introduced in 2000.

Currently, CSAA and the automobile club of Southern California are the only regional auto associations still putting out their own maps. CSAA issues 99 of its own maps, primarily of regions and cities in its service area.

In other words the Internet world of digital documents may have more to do with the passing of locally-informed cartography than the economics of outsourcing does.

However, that phrase "locally-informed cartography" captures more that the value of proximity. Zuckerman provided the following quote from Stuart Allan, founder of Allan Cartography in Medford, Ore., whom he calls "one of the deans of mapmaking in the West," which addresses the CSAA products in terms of the second half of the noun phrase:

They're exemplary, especially the county and regional series. The standard of design and accuracy of the work is fantastic.

Like probably just about everyone who is reading this post, I have made frequent use of the maps provided through both Google and Yahoo!; and it is clear, to me at least, that such a "standard of design and accuracy" is all but absent in those digital offerings. Now, to be fair to Google, the last time that accuracy really mattered, I was able to resolve my problem with a Street View, which I would not have been able to do with even the best CSAA map. Nevertheless, when it comes to homing in on just what you need from either a Google or Yahoo! map, the interface runs the gamut from clunky through inconvenient to practically counterproductive. We thus face an interesting variation on Gresham's Law, according to which the "artificial" currency of the "new Internet" (or "Web 2.0") concept of a map has driven out a "specie" standard based on almost 100 years of design experience.

Once again we are confronted with a familiar question: How did we get into this mess? Ironically, the answer has been with us for at least as long as anthropologists have been studying the impact of technology (particularly "smart" technology) on work practices: The reconception of the map in the digital domain has grown out of a study of the map artifacts of the physical domain that neglected to take into account the rich repertoire of human activities in which those artifacts were involved. (This is, of course, a generalization of the approach that Ludwig Wittgenstein had taken to developing a theory of language, based on the premise that it is more important to concentrate on how terms are used than on what they mean or are.) This is the same mess that has confronted every effort to "translate" reading practices from the physical to the digital domain: The product-development focus has always been on building better hardware and interfaces based on an understanding of the physical books we read, rather than the activities in which we engage while reading those books (in spite of an abundance of data about those activities in studies such as those that address the "affordances" of physical media).

From a personal point of view, I would like to point out that one my own activities applied to road maps had to do with treating them as play objects. As a child I would turn to them for games of vicarious exploration, usually beginning in my own neighborhood and then asking what would happen if I went in a direction that my parents never took me. Since I was raised in Brooklyn, I came to know a fair amount about the geography of Long Island through such games. (I also happened to have an old globe that indicated the lanes for passenger vessels, so I could play the same games on a global scale.) In my student days I would play similar games with transit maps, particularly in cities, such as Philadelphia, where one could transfer freely among subways, trolleys, and busses on a single fare. Since the Philadelphia transit map included an index of points of interest, I learned about, and then visited, sites I had never previously considered (such as Benjamin Franklin's grave). With experiences like those in my personal life history, I am particularly pained whenever I read reports of how little kids now seem to know about geography on any scale, local, national, or global. Like many I have heard Google evangelists talk about playing with their products; but I find those games impoverished compared to those I would play with physical maps, perhaps because the physical maps offered more leverage for the imagination (just as reading a novel feeds the imagination more than watching a film adaptation of that novel).

Thus my discontent at the passing of the CSAA road maps goes beyond the usual grumbling about the limitations of the Web 2.0 age. It is not just a matter of examining artifacts with blinders that block out the observation of activities. It is a matter of artifacts whose practical utility in one setting was accompanied by an educational utility in another setting. Solving the problem of efficiently getting a motorist from here to there is certainly important. However, one paragraph towards the end of Zuckerman's report reminds us (in a way that cuts close to the bone of Web 2.0 thinking) that general geographic awareness is also a problem:

Stuart Allan said people are gaining clear directions, but sacrificing information that lets a user see the whole picture. He cites the example of James Kim, the Bay Area journalist who became marooned on an Oregon mountain and died in 2006 after following online travel directions that led him to a little-used forest road.

1 comment:

labsji said...

Consequence of efficiency. Even plastic was considered efficient before people realized the ecological cost.
It is a shame that we need to go through the same/similar learnings again and again.