In its early days, the Internet was organized as a codified mirror image of life on earth. This implied a sharp distinction between activities in cyberspace and those in real life. Today, however, this distinction is no longer so sharp since digital services relate much more to our actual everyday lives and to the physical, geographical reality we live in. As a result, maps are enriched with all sorts of (real-time) data, and they are increasingly becoming our gateways to the Internet.

Our oberservations

  • The development of ever more detailed maps is largely driven by the need for high-resolution navigation. The development of self-driving vehicles calls for even more detailed (3D) maps.
  • On top of static geographical data, maps are increasingly enriched with all sorts of dynamic information about specific locations, businesses, and events, and real-time data provides insight for instance in traffic, special offerings, or weather conditions.
  • Location-based services for ride-hailing, food deliveries, or dating already connect the digital sphere explicitly with life on earth.
  • Through so-called geofencing, virtual boundaries can be defined around specific areas or locations in which GPS-enabled devices are triggered to perform a task. For example, smartphones can be silenced in a theatre, advertisements can be sent, and (self-driving) vehicles can be prohibited to enter an area or their speed cam can automatically be reduced.
  • With the rise of smart homes and cities, our built environment is slowly coming to life, and it is feeding our maps with additional data. As such, smart environments will guide and nudge us to change our everyday practices.

Connecting the dots

Despite the fact that the Internet infrastructure itself is earthbound, we used to associate “going online” with a trip into cyberspace, a different reality. Indeed, terms like digital cities, chatrooms, web space, and the very idea of Second Life underscore how the early Internet was thought of as an alternative to real life in virtual environments. With digitization moving from mere information and media content to real-life and location based services, the Internet is becoming increasingly relevant in our everyday lives and practices. This also means that the line between the digital and the physical (geographical) sphere is becoming more and more blurred. Intriguingly, the term ‘cloud’ also hints at this return to Earth:  the web is no longer located in outer (cyber)space, but in our atmosphere.
Consequently, (digital) maps are changing from static representations of our physical environment into dynamic interfaces between us and our physical and social environment. They provide us with relevant and context specific information, depending on our location, time, and intentions. Such data includes real-time location-based information on traffic, the weather, and other consumers’ whereabouts and activities. Practically, this also means that maps are becoming our inroads into the Internet as we go online to find information about things and places specifically in relation to a location on a map. In fact, in doing so, maps already present an advanced form of Augmented Reality as we look at our world through the lens of these enriched and living maps that provide a layer of information presented on top of our own experiences and observations.
The information provided through these living maps stems from us as users, i.e. information that we provide passively through our activities, whereabouts, and what we actively provide by writing comments and reviews and executing searches and clicks, etc. However, at the same time, the information is produced by our environment because all kinds of objects are becoming digitized and sensory. These living maps and the information and insights they produce are also more and more performative: they tell us where to go and what to do. Most of this will take place in a relatively subtle and nudging fashion, but developments such as geofencing suggest that living maps will increasingly enforce specific forms of behavior from our devices and ultimately ourselves.

Implications

  • How we relate to our (immediate) natural, artificial, and social surroundings is already changing as maps mediate our perspective on them. Maps not only augment our own observations, they may also fully substitute them; for example, we no longer have to look out of the window to gauge the weather outside. At the same time, living maps may also nudge us to explore our immediate surroundings by informing us about events and locations that we would otherwise overlook.
  • Looking ahead further into the future, living maps are a first step towards full-fledged Augmented Reality systems. Current interfaces, e.g. smartphone screens, do not offer a practical means of overlaying all sorts of data on top of our own observations, but future interfaces, e.g. smart glasses, will most likely be able to do so. Such devices, fed by data and insights from living maps, would radically transform our perception of our environment, and they would be able to change our behavior and everyday practices in ways we have never experienced before.