How Google Earth changed the world

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Life and Style
Suited and booted in the Lanvin show at the Paris menswear collections
fashionParis Fashion Week
Arts and Entertainment
Kara Tointon and Jeremy Piven star in Mr Selfridge
tvActress Kara Tointon on what to expect from Series 3
Voices
Winston Churchill, then prime minister, outside No 10 in June 1943
voicesA C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
An asteroid is set to pass so close to Earth it will be visible with binoculars
news
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has spoken about the lack of opportunities for black British actors in the UK
film
News
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst - Tunbridge Wells - £30,000

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Junior Test Analyst/Systems Administ...

    Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - .NET, C#

    £40000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Global Real Estate Software P...

    Recruitment Genius: Drupal / PHP Developer

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity for a talented...

    Recruitment Genius: IT Technical Support Engineer

    £17000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to continuing growth, recru...

    Day In a Page

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project