The other day, I drew a map of my hometown. I sketched the houses and the office buildings into tight, symmetrical rectangles that contrasted sharply against the scribbles of forest and farmland that abut the village. I penciled the sports fields, demarcated the roads. And then I drew the river—the long, curvilinear body that swings in and out of the town line.
I drew this map because, the other day, I bought a new Samsung Galaxy phone. It is my first phone with Internet, apps and all the good stuff. Because I am currently traveling and because I want to “make my life richer, simpler, more fun” (as its advertisement suggests), I thought I’d get one of these phones to have easy GPS access and instant maps of any location I might end up in during my movements in unfamiliar landscapes.
I thought it would be fun to sketch out my hometown—and then see how one of my fancy new apps would map the place, objectively, of course.
And then something weird happened. As it turns out, I made the river in my town way too big. I made a certain beach of that river swing enormously and erroneously eastward. Compared to the map on my phone, that beach’s shape looked grotesque and bulbous, like a wart.
It’s no mystery that the value we attribute to certain places can, in our minds, enhance the magnitude of that area’s spatial cataloging. Obviously, if someone frequents or has fond memories of a certain place, they will most likely, and probably subconsciously, make it bigger, more grandiose than other spaces.
In an anthro class I took last semester, for instance, every student had to draw their own version of Bowdoin’s campus. Students who ate at Thorne everyday made the Tower central in their respective map, many of my peers made their dorms bigger than the other dorms, etc. As human beings, we divide, we categorize and we separate phenomena. Be it through language, symbols, mapmaking. Whatever. The reality we experience, even as Bowdoin students walking along the Quad, is infused with our beliefs about and our interaction with that “reality.”
But let’s get a little less theoretical. As a kid, I used to fish for rock bass at that beach that I drew so incorrectly large and sideways. I would dig up worms and snatch crayfish from pools and hook them onto the rusty trout hooks that my father had used years earlier. As I got older, I would take girls down there on one of those awkward, middle school, is-this-a-date kind of things. That beach means everything to my perception of my hometown.
But now, let’s get a little less reminiscent.
After using my new, techno-pimped-out-wifi-Google-Map-wielding polycarbonate device for a few days, I started to use it for directions pretty much everywhere. I started to look at the street names within the beige blocks of roads on the screen, rather than on the green street signs right in front of me.
And then I started to feel bored—bored and sad.
It shouldn’t take a lot of cerebral somersaults to realize that the act of translating experience into digital imagery doesn’t usually amount to a whole lot of meaning or personal fulfillment. But it’s not just that, I’ve known that. I started to feel sad because I began to put less significance into the spaces around me. So much of how we move, how we project distance and create space in our mind relies on the memories we have formed of the places through which we have traveled. Place, all too often, gets intertwined with emotion, sensation and reaction. When I think of places, I think of the people I have been with at those locations.
And here’s the problem with having the world perfectly mapped by satellite in a tiny touch screen that sits in your pocket. Spaces become dully objective. You can always see exactly how far, how big or how steep a place is before you get there. There’s no more surprise. There’s no more interaction and curiosity about that space with the people around you.
With an app one touch away that perfectly delineates the edgings and markings of the world, we will, less and less, match spaces with mistakes, thrill, elation, heartbreak. As I have recently done, we will direct ourselves through pixelated territory and remember those locations as the satellite maps we first used to find them: perfectly and sterilely and horribly correct and accurate.
If I had grown up constantly checking a phone to reassure the cartography of my hometown, I’m not sure I would have built up that beach as such a big and stunning and magical spot.
I’m trying, now, to use GPS mapping as little as possible. I prefer to find a place on my own. I prefer to map the world in my head, connect spaces and size places based on the phenomena that affect and distress and interest me. In the map I drew of my hometown, the inaccurate beach had little V markings of sand that looked like the scales of a rock bass.
And I remember that beach so well, despite my current location so far from home. So big and resplendent with stones as round and smooth as eggs. I remember walking over them, clenching my leg and shoulder muscles against the lopsided and incorrect feeling against my feet. I was younger then. I’m trying to walk out into some deep and unknown pool—all to impress a girl. She is at the shore, dipping her toes in the water and throwing rocks at my back.