I have a new favourite game. And it’s a doozy. To be good at it you need spatial awareness, lizard-quick reactions, nerves of steel. My partner isn’t crazy about it, not least because I’m still, at best, only average at it and it occasionally means she misses things (the first course of meals, our designated ferry) simply because – just for fun – her other half insists on going on long car journeys without using satnav.
Of course it’s more than just a game. It’s a way of wresting back control, asserting my autonomy. A way of reconnecting with the tactility of my road atlas, an object which can’t help but be beautiful, however ho-hum its design. My ritual is now established. Before we set off I study a map. An actual paper one. The kind that lies dog-eared and back-broken in the footwell behind the passenger seat. I trace routes with my finger. Make mental notes of landmarks. Commit arcane codes to memory, murmur them like ancient incantations: A419, B1406, Junction 3. We’re not yet able to navigate by the sun, but we try always to stay conscious of our internal compasses, our innate feeling for north.
People like me do this in the spirit of play, but it has a serious purpose.
It marks, for us, a line in the sand, a Rubicon (all these map-friendly metaphors!) that we will we not cross both as an end in itself (the ability to read maps, to navigate, to self-guide ourselves through time and space is one that we are not willing to relinquish) but also because we know that it represents the sharp end of a new wave of techno-sociological engineering to which we are not willing to submit.
The fabled Turing Test has long been the bench mark for artificial intelligence: it will be passed when we will create a computer so adept at conversation that you can’t tell if it’s a machine or not. But for a new generation of thinkers, among them Brett Frischmann and Evan Selinger, co-authors of Re-Engineering Humanity, the most interesting area of inquiry is not whether we are create machines that are more like us, but whether machines are starting to create humans that are more like them.
It’s easy to imagine that this will only start happening should Elon Musk and his ilk’s still wildly speculative theories hold true, and we find ourselves in the future with implants in our heads that can manage our moods, take control of our diaries, and give us direct access to every shred of the world’s information.
But just because we’re a long way from these scary feats of human engineering doesn’t mean the process hasn’t already started.
The outsourcing of navigation – our relinquishing of control of the map – is a perfect example of the way in which machines are engineering us so that we’re more like them: programmatic and unable to reason, blind followers of instruction – like that bit in US version of The Office when Michael drove his car into a river because the satnav told him to. What the satnav devotees forget is that maps were always expressions of power and knowledge. Since their earliest incarnations they’ve been recognised as social documents. Take, for example, 440 BCE’s World According to Herodotus, a fairly accurate representation of the eastern Mediterranean surrounded by three lumpy misshapen continents; it demonstrates in a blink the power of the map to dictate who is in and who is out. The us. The them. The known. The other.
coat JOSEPH, dress COS, trousers STYLIST’S OWN, boots AYEDE, belt bag MARGE SHERWOOD
Maps were always expressions of power and knowledge. Since their earliest incarnations they’ve been recognised as social documents.
To control the map is to control perceptions. Take, for example, the long-fought battle between advocates of the Mercator map and the Peters Projection. The former stays true to the actual shapes of the various land masses but, in doing so, it vastly distorts the relative size of the northern and southern hemisphere. In the latter you see Africa vastly bigger in relation to the other continents and Europe scrunched up miserably at the top. Who is peripheral and who is central? Who is bigger? Who is best?
The most wonderful maps are also works of art. Take the brilliant horizontal schema of the 4th century Tabula Peutingeriana or Hendrik Hondius’s gorgeous and amazingly accurate Nova Totius Terrarum Orbis Geographica Ac Hydrographica Tabula of 1630. These are beautiful testaments to our age-old urge to understand in space, comprehend our place in the world, navigate.
Relinquishing all this to a satellite is incomprehensible – to me. And, increasingly, I can’t help but wonder if the reclamation of the map is only the first necessary step. It might be that the truly radical move will be to abandonmapping completely.
Recently, at a spa, I underwent a radiological scan and was confronted with a bodymap of fat deposits. There’s an image I’ll never forget. Another little bit of the mystery dies. This ubiquitous mapping out weighs, I sense, even heavier on millennials. Their digital maps are vastly more detailed than mine – all those timelines, geotagged images, Fitbit traces. And the straitened times they’ve inhabited mean that they’ve become obsessed with mapping out their adult lives: trainee programmes, internships, skill-set development, personal bests, calorie counts (literally nobody in the 1990s went to the gym, not even footballers).
Should we pull back from our immersion in tech, which has us ever more in thrall to its fetishising of efficiency? We’re obsessed with shortcuts, fast tracks, measurable goals, mapping everything – even emotions. We want to get everywhere, only faster. Perhaps a sort of freedom might be found if we dispense with maps altogether, and start to embrace other ways of getting from A to wherever: spontaneity, extemporaneity, chance. Perhaps we might all be happier if we shut off the satnav and rediscovered the joys of getting lost.
written by DAVID ANNAND
photography SHINI PARK
art direction CAMILO GONZALEZ
styling SIMON SCHMIDT
assist YIANNA HADJIPANAYIOTOU