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The Base and the Overlay: Maps, MirrorWorlds, Action Cards

There are natural and abstract surfaces onto which we overlay our stories. The sphere that we paint water and land masses on represents the natural shape of our small planet. For other endeavors we designate abstract work surfaces. One early example of this idea is the organizational scheme of Diderot’s encyclopedia. While subjects were laid out in alphabetical order, the book also contained conceptual maps and cross-linking to super-impose the natural shape of the history of ideas on to the abstract system of organization. This blending of the abstract and natural (GUI and NUI) that informed Diderot’s project is a theme that has returned as we build out the mobile interaction points of the Network.

The alphabet is ingrained at such an early age through the use of song, that we often feel it’s an artifact of the natural world. The fact that so many of us can recite a randomly ordered set of 26 symbols is a triumph of education and culture. The neutrality and static nature of the alphabetic sequence allows us to organize and find things across a community with little or no coordination. Although, the static nature of the alphabetic sequence is rather unforgiving. For instance, my book and CD collections are both alphabetically ordered. Or at least they were at one point in time. And although I understand why things get into a muddle, it doesn’t help me find the book that’s just flashed through my mind as I look at the shelves in front of me.

These maps, both natural and abstract, that we use to navigate our way through the world are becoming more and more significant. Especially as our ability to represent the physical world through the Network becomes more high definition. Just as with the alphabet, we’ll tend to forget that the map is not the territory. Borges’s story about the futility of a map scaled to exactly fit the territory has an important message for our digital age:

In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

Google spiders the Network for its search index and then presents algorithmically-processed search engine results pages in response to user queries. The larger map is not in plain view, just the slice that we request. It seems as though for any question we can imagine, Google will have some kind of an answer. The map appears to cover the territory point for point. Even the ragged edge of the real-time stream is framed in to the prioritized list of responses. The myth of completeness covers over the gap between the map and the territory, and the even the other maps and communications modes we might use within the territory.

If a tree falls in a forest in China, and there’s not a Google search result page linking to the event, does it make a sound?

Reading and writing to the maps of the Network has long been facilitated by Graphical User Interfaces. While the abstract metaphors of the GUI will never go away entirely, we’re seeing a new set of Natural User Interfaces emerge. Designing a better, simpler and clearer abstraction is giving way to finding the gestures that map to the natural contours of our everyday lived experience.

Natural interaction with high-definition representations via the Network has opened the door to what David Gelernter calls Mirror Worlds. Just as the fixed nature of the alphabet provided us with a set of coordinates on which to hang our collections of things, geo-coordinates will provide a similar framework for mirror worlds. Both Google and Microsoft have pasted together a complete base map of our entire planet from satellite photography and vector graphic drawings.

As with the search index, the base map provides us with a snapshot in time; we see the most recent pictures. The base is a series of photographs, not a real-time video stream. Even at this early phase of the mirror world we can see an overlay of real-time data and messages projected on to the base map. While we might expect the base map to move along a curve toward higher and higher fidelity and definition, it seems more likely that the valuable detail will find its home in the overlays.

The base map will be a canvas, or a skeleton, on which we will overlay meanings, views, opinions, transaction opportunities and conversations. While there will be a temptation to somehow ‘get it right.’ To present a compete and accurate representation of the territory— mapping each point, and each data point, with absolute fidelity and accuracy, it’s here where we wander off into Borges’s land of scientific exactitude and the library of babel. The base map only needs to be good enough to give us a reference point to hang our collections of things on. And, of course, realism is only one mode of expression.

The creation of overlays is the province of the mashup, the mixing of two distinct data sources in real time. Maps and twitter, apartment locations and craigslist, potholes and San Francisco streets, a place/time and photographs of a special event— all these implementations have demonstrated that geo-mashups are possible and happening continuously. But as this sea of real-time data washes across the surface of the map, we’d like a seat at the mixing board. A URL that pre-mixes two or more data sets has it’s use, but it’s a static implementation.

The framework of selectors and action cards may have the most promise here. Action cards are already engineered to work as overlays to base maps of any kind. When mixing and matching geo-location coordinates on the base map with streams of data, including identity-specific private data, is just a matter of throwing action cards from your selector on to a base map, you’ll have a natural user interface to a mirror world. And while the gap between the map and the territory will remain, as Baudrillard might say, the map begins to become a kind of territory of its own.

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