Google Maps Takes to the Trails! What Does It Mean for Technology, Nature, and Ourselves?

We’ve all used Google Maps to figure out how to get from one place to another.  However, in the past, Google Maps’ information was mostly limited to the roads.  Now, Google Maps is taking to the backcountry as well!

Using GPS to map trails is nothing new.  Trail managers in recreation areas use GPS and GIS software to create accurate maps.  There are now hiking apps that use GPS in their developmental stages so you can access maps of your favorite trails from your smartphone, such as Guthook’s Trail Guide Apps.  However, in terms of images associated with this GPS and computer based mapping, the most these maps can do is attach a photo to a specific clickable way point, such as at an scenic overlook.  What sets Google Maps apart is the imaging capability.   Not only can it map our route, but “street view” allows for a 360-degree, feet on the ground perspective of any location along the road you so choose.  Pretty soon, we may be seeing a button on the Google website for “trail view.”  This would allow us to see exactly what would surround us if we were to step foot on a trail, no sweat.  Or some sweat, depending on how long you’ve been sitting in your computer chair…

Google Street View Car

How do they do this?  We’ve all seen the Google Maps car [shown right].  I can’t explain the specifics of it, but it has a fancy contraption on top that houses multiple cameras.  Pictures are taken along the way and stitched together afterwards to create 360 degree panoramic images that we can essentially “step into” online.  But of course they can’t take the car onto the AT or PCT, or Ireland’s Dingle Way or Turkey’s Lycian Way.  There is only one way to capture a “street view” the world’s trails, and that’s by foot!

Google has developed a backpack they call the “Street View Trekker.”  Using this backpack, Google is enlisting folks to take it for a spin out on the trails so they can map and street view trails.  It features a similar device to the one sitting on top of the car.  It looks like this:

Trekker hi-res
Street View Trekker











As a hiker and gear junkie, I’m personally interested in the backpack.  They say it weighs about 50 pounds.  50 pounds is a large load, but certainly not the heaviest load of all time (what’s up AMC hut kids?!).  Given its awkward shape I wonder how it feels on the hips and shoulders. I’m curious about the balance and weight distribution.  Of course though, the functionality of this backpack in terms of regular gear use criteria is probably the least of Google’s concerns.  I’m sure people are lining up to slug this thing along their favorite trails anyway so they can leave their mark on the world [wide web].  I don’t blame them, I think it’s pretty cool.  Turns out, so can you!

Google is officially accepting applications from people who desire to use the Google Street View Trekker to help contribute to Google’s final product.  The application can be found through the Street View Trekker Loan Program:  Apply Here.

Google has even released a promotional YouTube video to encourage enrollment in the Street View Trekker Loan Program, and so you can see this thing in action:

According to Google Maps’ introductory blog post, the Street View Trekker has already been put to extensive use in Hawaii for future inclusion into Google Maps.  There are also snippets of it being used to capture magnificent locations in Thailand, for an emotional project in Japan, and to document one of the world’s greatest endangered sporting events in Alaska.  Clearly, the Street View Trekker is picking up momentum and finding its way around the world.

Ultimately, I think this is a really cool idea, as I am generally interested in all things map/mapping related.  I could honestly see myself getting involved and contributing to this project sometime in the future.  I mean, heck, I go hiking all the time anyway, why not carry a 50 pound pack for Google?

However, as nature continually enters the virtual sphere, we have to ask ourselves what it all means.  Good, bad, or otherwise, could there be any personal, emotional and physical, or environmental repercussions to a natural world that exists almost in its entirety also in an increasingly accessible digital realm?

Biologist E.O. Wilson popularized the term “biophilia,” which he states is “the innate attraction to life and lifelike processes,” or in layman’s terms: we like nature.  Does it matter how we seek it out, whether by foot in fresh air or through a TV in the air-conditioned comfort of our own homes?  I think the problem with the question I pose above is that it is too often answered in an “either-or” or “black and white” way.

The first side is one that seems like a scene of the Disney’s Wall-E, where we receive all of our necessary information and entertainment, or in this case our thirst for nature, from a screen in front of our faces.  The result would be significantly fewer, or the majority of people never leaving their chair to get a glimpse of nature.  Essentially, we could all potentially through hike the length of the Appalachian Trail using Street View on Google Maps.  This instance ‘could’ be good for nature, for example, less pressure and use from people at least in terms of recreation and tourism (this does not address resource extraction and use in the home, industry, transportation, etc., for example).  But it may be at the expense of our physical well being.  Then, we would all end up looking like this:

Wall-E obese humans - cropped
a scene from Wall-E

Because we have access to nature on our computers, we won’t feel the need to get up, go outside, and experience it for ourselves. I think this perspective adheres to a very simple principal:  real time in “real nature” (for lack of a better term) is irreplaceable.  At this point in time, screen based technology can stimulate only two of our human senses, sight and sound.  Even those sensations might be stunted in a virtual world.  In virtual nature, you cannot feel the bark of a tree or get mud on your legs, taste trail side blueberries, or smell a blooming meadow.  This standpoint makes very valid arguments.  But the majority of the people sounding off on on the issue of technological nature seem to be from this perspective.

So, we have one perspective that assumes that people will use technological nature, whether consciously or unconsciously, as an excuse NOT to go outside.  Even though we aren’t aren’t all in the techno-phobic extreme of the first perspective, I believe its a feeling among the general public that video games, cell phones, and computers keep ourselves and our children inside and away from nature.  Is there another way virtual nature can change the way we act?  The second perspective I am going to propose is harder to identify, because I don’t think the average person spends much of their day contemplating the inverse of perspective one.  I don’t think the general public really dwells on the relationship between technology, nature, and themselves anyway.    Therefore, people don’t even realize how technology can and is influencing the way they are actually choosing to GO OUT into nature.  I do believe technology is fundamentally changing the way we access nature, especially since everyone seems to be using the internet these days. Basically what I think it’s helping us say is, “I GOTTA GO THERE!”  I do it all the time.  I stumble across someone’s hiking blog, read a trip report that sounds good, and basically replicate the same trip for myself.  We have infinite amounts of information and pictures at our fingertips online, and places or natural features that previously may have been hidden, unknown, or secrets held by local people and knowledge are being exposed to people all over the world.  Pictures and aerial views are great, but Google Street View allows virtual access on a whole other level.  In turn, with an increase in virtual exposure to these places we may see an increase in people inspired to get out and see these places for themselves.  Basically, the more people know about it, the more people will go.  Ultimately, I think inspiration to travel, visit, see, and hike is a great thing.  But that doesn’t mean increasing pressures of tourism and recreation (i.e. overcrowding), particularly in places that may be environmentally or culturally sensitive and may have been preserved throughout centuries simply because of anonymity, is not a potential concern.  The same could be said for our favorite hiking trails that may be seeing sustainable use at present, but could see increased use in the future.  Potentially good for our physical selves, but bad for each site.

These two perspectives are the extreme examples.  They are the “black and white” responses, one side being (in hyperbolic colloquial terms) that we will become lazy and disconnected from nature outside, and the other being that with increasing virtual knowledge will be increasing use in real life, which may result in nature being trampled over.  The truth is, the answer probably lies somewhere in between, the result being hopefully not being so catastrophic.  Additionally, these two perspectives do not operate alone, but are interconnected with other social, political, and economic circumstances associated with each individual that may also influence the way they behave and whether or not they go outside.

Author Sue Thomas recognizes E.O. Wilson’s terminology as legitimate, but reaches deep into the philosophy and pulls it out of the 20th century and into the 21st, by coining the word “technobiophilia.”  The term states that we have an “innate attraction to life and lifelike processes as they appear in technology.”  In her book “Technobiophilia:  Nature and Cyberspace,” and her article, “Technobiophilia: Can We Get All the Nature We Need From the Digital World?” she proposes that “biophilia” and “technobiophilia” do not have to stand alone, but are likely to synthesize across interfaces and human experiences.  We will somehow tread the line between nature outside and nature on our screens, and the two will interact symbiotically as we do so.  She recognizes (backed with research) that virtual depictions, creations, and manifestations of nature can have psychological benefits to humans, just like “real” ones can, but that it isn’t necessarily a replacement.  We should spend less time trying to keep each world separate, choosing between the two and supporting one realm while demonizing the other, and rather learn how to navigate both in our lives to create a complete and consistent experience with nature.

This is obviously a massive topic, and in no way have all sides, perspectives, connections, and intricacies been exposed in this blog post.  Of the three philosophies proposed, it’s hard to say which is right.  None of them may be.  There are philosophies yet to be explored.  However, it’s clear that technology is here to stay, and the natural world is not immune to its impact.  It is no doubt however, that Google Maps is contributing another major factor to how we may interact with nature, and offering another tool to potential outdoor enthusiasts and travelers, not to mention school teachers, public speakers, or armchair explorers.  I am fascinated by what Google is doing, and excited to see the outcome.  I am particularly compelled by the internationally cooperative, community based approach they are using to accomplish this monumental task.  By using the Street View Trekker, Google is essentially opening up the entire world to anyone, virtually, including places only accessible by foot that may have never been documented in a similar way in the technological sphere.

Despite the increasing number of ways we can use technology to navigate the backcountry, I think it’s critically important to emphasize that we all still understand and know how to use paper maps and real compasses.  No matter what, GPS devices, phones, and apps, can and will fail.  A map and compass are the only tried and true navigational tools.  They are timeless, having been used for centuries before and will undoubtedly persist into the future.  They are detailed and accurate, low-tech but highly reliable.  Knowing how to use them both are fundamental to your success and more importantly your safety in the backcountry.  Never leave home without them.  Guthook agrees.



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