Maps and Moralities, Blanks and Beasties

Jane was unusually quiet. Normally, at this point she would
 be chirruping suggestions and admonitions, being helpful and accommodating. Silence was definitely odd. I glanced at her to make sure she was alright. Yes, she seemed to be okay.

Given that I was driving, I turned my eyes back to the road, concerned I would over-steer and career down the steep bank. I looked at the potholed, narrow road ahead and the lush vista below. Another minute of silence passed. Just as I was about to stop the car in the middle of the road and address her directly, Jane spoke.

Turn around! Turn around!

Was it me, or did she sound somewhat concerned? Anxious perhaps? Looking at the width of the road I was on, it was clearly not possible to turn around right there. The road was one and a half times the width of the Jeep I was driving.

I looked down at Jane, aka the voice of my TomTom XL1 navigational device, from whence her voice came. She was now sounding more urgent. I focused more carefully. I saw the source of her distress. The map on my TomTom was a white, blank screen.

Completely empty.

We are nowhere.

Disturbingly precise, our nowhere was notated.


No route planned!
(Note the exclamation mark—quite emphatic.)

0mph  1:22pm  206 SW


I am an urban rat. I have never been anywhere with so much…nothingness.

I am used to apartment buildings, skyscraper skylines, streets lined with shops, buses trundling by, and cars U-turning in the street for that elusive parking place. I was thoroughly discomfited by the featureless white landscape depicted by my TomTom.

I hesitantly looked up from the display and peered out the windshield, a little afraid of what I would see.

Funnily enough, there looked to be plenty around me. I was not in a sea of white, a landscape tabula rasa. No, there were trees, vines, and a blue sky, with a road (well traveled) ahead and a side road (not so well traveled) about 400 yards down the hill.

Backing up a little (conceptually), to give some context ….. I was in Waipi’o Valley, “The Valley of the Kings,” on Hawaii’s Big Island, driving down to the valley floor and heading to the beach. Waipi’o Valley is beautiful and lush, with stunning waterfalls. Its untouched splendor gives the appearance of remoteness, but it is an inhabited area with plenty of tourists—surveying the area by car, horseback, and using “shanks’ ponies” (that is, walking). As I gazed at the valley below, I saw a group of six elderly hikers. Seconds later another Jeep, just like the one I was driving, was approaching from behind.

My point is, I was not in 
an uninhabited, featureless nowhere. Despite the TomTom’s insistence, I had indeed “planned” a trip. And despite its visual representation, a map of nothingness, I was definitely somewhere, definitely in a place vibrant with life of all kinds. Not in a flat white nothing. In an interesting terrain. I could conclude only that the TomTom, and therefore Jane, was not altogether happy with my plan to head to the beach.



Reflecting on this incident has led me to decide there are some problems with the TomTom, despite my general agreement with Jan Borchers’ discussion
in interactions that this device hits his sweet spot as a nicely designed, truly useful interactive appliance. One issue is that it is biased to the road well traveled. Two, it needs connectivity; it gets all confused when it hasn’t been connected for a while. The third is that though Jane makes the TomTom suitably multi- modal for the very real design issue of effective and appropriate information delivery while our eyes remain where they should be—on the road—she also doesn’t know when to shut up. So, I have been pondering three things: first, cartography and nothingness; second, reflective services; and third, anthropomorphic/conversational interfaces.

More and more people are using maps from Web pages and portable Internet-linked or satellite-connected navigational devices for route planning and as navigational aids. We have probably all used Mapquest, Yahoo! Maps, and/or Google Maps (which someone pointed out recently are not in fact maps but a map with a scroll facility). In the world of Internet interaction, maps are having a heyday. In fact, a colleague recently told me that they are, from a design- research perspective, “passé” (he actually said if he saw one more mapping application he would throw up).

I cannot deny that we have come a long way since John Ogilby, the Scotsman who
 called himself “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographic Printer,” created the Britannia Atlas of 1675, the first British road atlas. Ogilby set the standard for maps and navigation tools that followed. He specified the use of 1760 yards for the mile, which was not then standard, and the scale of one inch to a mile. I would have had a hard time unfurling scrolls of map- page while driving down a steep road at 15 mph. But, as Peter Turchi writes in his book Maps of the Imagination: “a map may be beautiful but if it doesn’t tell us what we want to know or clearly illustrate what it means to tell us, it is merely a decoration.”

In the case of my TomTom, the blank space seems to me to be simplicity gone wild, especially when my sweet-spot multimodal technology (“multi” being the visuals and Jane’s voice) won’t admit that it just doesn’t know what is going on or where the heck we are.

Of course, all representations, including the maps we use, necessarily leave something out. The question is really about what gets in and what does not. In the Middle Ages maps were not necessarily about navigation; there were many blanks in people’s knowledge of lands near and far. Many maps were not “practical”; they were not about navigating from point A to point B. Christian mapmakers drew
up mappa mundi that showed their understanding of the world, including heaven and hell. The most famous examples are the Ebstorf map (created circa 1234 AD) and the Hereford map (created circa 1300 AD). To our modern eyes, these maps look positively fanciful; known locations and key features are represented, but the spaces between them are filled with (literally) fantastic images. Cartographers weren’t just filling the gaps for visual continuity, however, they were representing what was important and unimportant, what was near and what was far—morally, ethically, and emotionally, rather than what was near and far spatially. As Alfred Crosby, the historian phrased it, these maps were for “sinners not navigators”; they were meant to be used to chart conceptual and moral knowledge and to reflect the harmonious order of God’s creation. For these mapmakers, those spaces between things known were never blank. They were dauntingly full of imaginings— beasties and peoples unknown, Lilliputians and dragons.


So Geographers, in Afric-maps With savage-pictures fill their gaps; And o’er uninhabitable downs
Place elephants for want of towns

—Jonathan Swift, the Irish cleric and essayist (1667–1745)


While I actually don’t want to rag on the TomTom too much (I do love it), I want to make the point that what is in the data- base, what things are left blank, and how we route people are not only aesthetic but also social
 and political choices. In his book Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson discusses the draw
ing of maps by colonial rulers.
He points out the ways in which maps were drawn and imposed upon colonially occupied lands, and how the borders they charted failed to honor the perspective of the people(s) who were living there. These imposed borders created social tensions that still have ramifications today. This lesson should not be taken as
a distant one, only useful for politicians and historians. Design blindness and political/cultural ignorance can have an immediate impact on business choices.
A great example is elaborated by Anne Balsamo of the University of Southern California in her essay of a few years back entitled “Taking Culture Seriously: Educating and Inspiring the Technological Imagination.” She writes: “A map of India included in the Windows 95 OS represented a small territory in a different shade of green from the rest of the country. The territory is, in fact, strongly disputed between the Kashmiri people and the Indian government; but Microsoft designers inadvertently settled the dispute in favor of one side. Assigning the territory (roughly 8 pixels in size on the digital map) a different shade of green signified that the territory was definitely not part of India. The prod- uct was immediately banned in India and Microsoft had no choice but to recall 200,000 copies [1].”

The TomTom is a “wayfinding” device. In 1960, the architect Kevin Lynch coined the term “wayfinding” in his book The Image of the City. He described how people orientate and choose paths within the built environment, taking into account how architectural and/or design elements—signs, maps—give travelers information about
their current location and how
to get to their desired location. It occurred to me that I had mostly thought of navigation devices like the TomTom as being only for wayfinding by car. But way- finding is crucially affected
by mode of transport— I was immensely pleased to discover navigation devices for sailing, biking, and hiking. Reflecting
on these devices, and on our everyday experience, it is very clear that wayfinding is not always simply about getting to 
a destination. Sometimes it’s about what you’re going to see
on the way; some maps take us past historic monuments or the best views. And then there is
a temporal (perhaps circadian
or seasonal) or sometimes a meteorological dimension that can entirely change the way we wish to map a location and a route, and that can change our perspective on the desirability of a destination.

In that vein, I recently designed a map for online daters showing areas of San Francisco in terms of nighttime inhabitation and illumination, aimed
 at people concerned with being alone at night in deserted places. The map shows which areas of San Francisco are dark and isolated in the evenings; you can toggle between day and night to see which areas are bustling in the day, but have low occupation at night. For example, the Financial District is a vibrant place in the daylight (work) hours but distinctly quieter and dark at night. This kind of information is useful for potential daters venturing to new parts of town for a night out with some- one they don’t really know.

Perhaps there is a whole space of possibility in the creation of “anxiety maps.” I know of more than one person who avoids entire routes on the basis of bad memories or the possibility that they may encounter a known, but no longer favored, person. More whimsically, given my love of high heels, I also designed a map and route/navigation tool for perambulating San Francisco, irrespective of footwear practicality. The map charts routes based on the height and style
of your shoes with rules like: Five-inch platform boots should not be worn on steep slopes,
and stylish stilettos are a no-no on potholed, grated Mission Street. I call such maps “socio- topographical.” Even further up the whimsical chain, I’m thinking of designing the Prescient Plug-in for a navigation device. It will tell you when you are on a fool’s errand and send you else- where—somewhere that may be more enjoyable or rewarding.

No, I am not entirely serious, but I am trying to illustrate that maps may be adapted to a range of terrain experience, proclivity, and accessibility beyond simply car, bike, and hike routes. Maps can address a sense of a place not rooted in objective fact or mathematical measurement. Some maps should be more reflective of experience rather than “flat” fact; some maps should be warm and “living” not cold. Online maps with stories, comments, and conversation attached to representations of location—Flickr maps, Twitter vision, CommunityWalk, Platial, and my group’s MapChat prototype that lets people insert chat bubbles onto locations in Yahoo! maps—are examples of living, warm maps.

Aside from the representation issues that I have been elaborating, there are some interactional issues that my story of visual nothingness and vocal inappropriateness brings up. Why don’t technologies know when they don’t know, or know that they are perhaps confused? What is so hard about building in some reflective capability that lets an interactional device know when it’s the victim of a service interruption, that lets it then handle that knowledge in a socially appropriate way? Like ….


Whoops, I was offline for a while and I’m now discombobulated.
What was it you wanted to do?
Where was it I was taking you?


Or, perhaps there is a different, socially appropriate action to take when clueless—shut up and don’t spout out random suggestions. For Jane, who was clearly confused after having been offline that would have been a better course of action than telling me to turn around. Just maybe, at times like this one, I know more than she does.

Yes, yes, I am anthropomorphizing Jane beyond her capabilities. I attribute this requirement of mine that she actually be
 a conversational navigational partner to her “sounding” so human—stilted, but human. As if she really were a person. So I do get lulled into a false sense 
of security about her knowledge and about her understanding of what I know. But this is not just a personal pathology. In looking at the ways in which we interact with humanlike conversational agents, Stanford researchers Byron Reeves and Cliff Nass a decade ago pointed out in their book The Media Equation that we get very engaged with these agents, as if they were human. And we expect them to be as good as a human in communicating with us. Further research suggests that when these conversational agents slip up, it can actually cause us to be quite annoyed with them.


Could Jane and the map she was reading from not have collectively told me that they just didn’t know what was happening or where the heck they were? That they had a dearth of information?

Apparently not. The illusion of a navigator-friend embodied in a small box occupying the passenger seat crumbled.

Jane and I came to an agreement. I would find my own way out of the valley, in my own time. And she would shut up. I turned the TomTom off and navigated myself to the beach.



For the original published article see ACM interactions magazine – ACM Press, Volume 15, Issue 4, 2008.

[1] commons/essay/balsamo-taking-culture- seriously

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