How Google Earth changed the world

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As Amazon and Apple race to break a mapping monopoly, Tim Walker charts the rise and uncertain future of a cartographical masterpiece.

The latest battleground for the world's biggest tech companies is one of its oldest forms of data: maps. Apple plans to release a new maps app this autumn featuring live traffic information derived from real-time iPhone user stats, and 3D imagery harvested by a fleet of Apple aircraft. With typical immodesty, the company is calling its new creation "the most beautiful, powerful mapping service ever".

Meanwhile, Amazon is teaming up with Nokia to produce a mapping app for its latest Kindle Fire tablets. Amazon and Apple are competing with Google, which until now has had a near-monopoly in online maps, with Google Maps, Earth and Street View.

Google Earth is the subject of the fascinating final chapter in a new book by Jerry Brotton, A History of the World in Twelve Maps. It is, the British professor says, a late departure in the history of maps, yet also owes much to the heritage outlined in his book.

"Google Earth looks like a traditional atlas," he explains. "Its homepage is an image of the world, and then you drill down through the layers. It mimics the history of cartography. To warp the image of the globe on to a flat surface, they're using a map projection invented by Ptolemy in AD150. It also deliberately picks up on the first, iconic 1972 whole Earth image taken by Apollo 17. They didn't call it 'Google World'; that would sound too imperialist. Instead they tap into a mapping tradition that's to do with the Earth, and man's relationship with the environment."

The most significant difference between Google Earth and its predecessors is the lack of geographers involved in its creation and maintenance. Google's top "Geospatial Technologist" is Ed Parsons, a former chief technology officer at Ordnance Survey. But almost all the other people who work on the application are tech professionals. They even resist describing Google Earth as a map. "Geography as a discipline has no involvement with what's going on online," says Brotton, who is himself a professor not of geography, but of Renaissance studies (at Queen Mary, University of London). "Geographers are concerned because, for instance, they don't know if or how these maps are being peer-reviewed."

The advent of Google Earth was predicted in a 1998 speech by the then-US Vice-President Al Gore, who imagined "Digital Earth", which would be embedded with "vast quantities of geo-referenced data" and could be used for noble causes such as environmental protection and international diplomacy. Three years later, the IT firm Keyhole launched a new programme called "Earthviewer". It looked like Gore's vision, but its creators had a more humble vision: they thought people would use it when buying property to decide if they liked the look of an area.

In 2003, the programme came to public attention when US TV news networks began using it to visualise battlefields during the Iraq War. Around the same time, In-Q-Tel, a not-for-profit company funded by the CIA, invested in Keyhole, presuming Earthviewer could have intelligence applications. But when Google bought Keyhole outright in 2004, Brotton believes, "Larry Page and Sergey Brin just thought it was cool. I don't think they realised what they'd got."

Much of the imagery in Google Earth is commercially available data from US military satellites. That explains, for example, why the residence of Dick Cheney, another former US Vice-President, was pixellated in Google Earth: it came that way. "If the military decided to pull the plug and not sell that data to Google, it would be stuffed," says Brotton. "That's why it's doing Street View: to collect data for which it owns the copyright."

In 2007, two years after Google Earth was launched, it partnered with the US Holocaust Memorial Museum to map the Darfur genocide in real time. This was the sort of thing Gore had in mind for his "Digital Earth". Most of us, however, make use of more banal functions, such as street directions. The firm's reasons for maintaining mapping applications are commercial. According to the "first law of geography", coined by US geographer Waldo Tobler in 1970, "everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things". Parsons estimates more than 30 per cent of all Google searches are spatial, and many of those are local searches for businesses. That spells advertising revenue.

"We're now realising," says Brotton, "that this monopolisation of geographical information online is simply about garnering more advertising money for Google. It's not about driving anything innovative around geography. Google is interested in giving people geospatial information about things near to them: the closest Chinese restaurant, the dry cleaner. But then, maps have always been tied to commercial enterprise."

This is the thrust of Brotton's book: that throughout history maps have always been partial, subjective and ego-centric. "All cultures produce a world map that puts their own interests and concerns at its heart. Even Ptolemy said any world map must make decisions about what it includes and what it leaves out. Some of those can be sinister decisions, but more often they're simply practical ones. Do you need to show the North and South poles if you don't think you'll ever go there? Probably not."

Fears of a Google monopoly over online mapping are now being alleviated, thanks to Apple and Amazon. "There will now be a proliferation of different versions of the world online, and we'll choose the ones that work for us, as we've always done, from the Babylonians to today. But we do need a choice," says Brotton.

For all his concerns about Google's influence, Brotton says he won't mourn the passing of the paper map. "Our elite middle-classes always say, 'I love paper maps; I'll never use GPS!' But the earliest maps were carved on stone – and when maps were first printed in the late 15th century, people said, 'This new technology is terrible!' Paper is dead and gone. When's the last time you used an A-to-Z of London?"

'A History of the World in Twelve Maps' is published by Allen Lane, £30

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