Map Quest

I was intrigued to read in early October about the sale at auction, for nearly $4 million, of a map. It wasn't, naturally, just any map: It was the first atlas of the world ever printed, from 1477, based on the cartographic calculations of Claudius Ptolemaeus, the
chap we call Ptolemy, who lived in Roman Egypt in the second century AD.

I was intrigued to read this for a straightforward reason: I love maps. I can study them for hours. I leave road atlases of the United States strewn around the house -- in the bathroom, in the TV room -- so that, when the mood strikes me, I can dip in and bone up on the state parks of Oregon, the path of Interstate 70 as it roams from Baltimore to its less distinguished western terminus in central Utah, or the rather elaborate Kentucky parkway system (the Daniel Boone, the Bluegrass, the exotically named Pennyrile), obviously conceived and built in a once-upon-a-time Kentucky that believed in large public expenditure.

That parkway system explains what it is that I find so fascinating about maps. They tell you about history -- about how and when places were discovered, how and when things were built; how and when, to be a little more grandiose about it, we humans acquire knowledge. Human triumph and folly are as alive on a map as they are in a history book: To study maps of, say, New York City over the course of a couple centuries, as I have done, is to glean very specific insight into how humans learn about and master, for better (Frederick Law Olmsted) and worse (Robert Moses), our environment.


Ptolemy faced several challenges, precisely because of the way he acquired his knowledge: In the second century, all he had to go on were the verbal descriptions given to him by seafaring men returning from voyage. The memory banks of second-century sailors, undoubtedly drenched in mead, proved unreliable: News accounts at the time of the auction noted the huge Scotland and tiny England, the Asia even vaster than Asia actually is, and of course the complete absence of the Americas. But all in all, the newspapers asserted, old Ptolemy acquitted himself pretty nicely. Things were basically in the right place.

I thought of Ptolemy two weeks later, when my friend David gave me my first-ever look at Google Earth. I suppose this is old hat to some of you, but: Wowie Zowie! It's just about the coolest thing you'll ever see.

You can start out looking at the globe. Then you zoom in to a continent. Then to a country, then a state or region, and right on down to a specific address. Sure enough -- there's the house I grew up in, on Amherst Road, and there's the Hackett's house, and the Maiolo's, and the Cox's, and everyone else's. There's that birch tree my mother planted in 1967. How large it's grown!

Of more universal interest, just move your cursor around a bit, and -- Mon Dieux, there's the Champ de Mars, and Les Invalides! And look, there's the Green Zone in Baghdad -- outlined, sure enough, in a thin green line.


But as I studied this new, Google-ized Earth, I had a dark thought: We might now have replaced Ptolemy's problem of not enough knowledge with the cyber-age problem of too much knowledge. Every single inch of our natural and man-made world has been photographed and plotted and mapped and is available to anyone in the world who has a computer.

As you might imagine, privacy issues arise. David told me that Google Earth users append little pinpoints on the program showing places of interest. So if you Google Earth Los Angeles, for example, you might see Tom Cruise's house, or Cameron Diaz's, or Cher's, or whomever's -- all identified by address.

I wonder whether having the world presented in such microscopic detail is a grand thing. Granted, it's fun to see what Cher's house looks like, or to check out the exact relationship to the beach of that hotel you've booked in the Bahamas, or peruse the street grid of downtown Vientiane.

But I'm also vaguely discomfited by the easy availability of all this information. And I don't even mean terrorists, although the thought of an al-Qaeda man being able to zoom in on the Sears Tower and then tilt and rotate the view to get a nice 3-D look (another feature of Google Earth) is something less than reassuring. No -- I'm thinking more of, say, real-estate agents and their sort: the vast army of private-sector snoopers who collect information on us. It doesn't make me long for inaccurate renderings of Scotland, but I stay mindful that if I can see into other people's business, then they can see into mine.