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.
—Suarez Miranda, Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV, Cap. XLV, Lerida, 1658
—Jorge Luis Borges, “The Exactitude of Science.” Translation by Andrew Hurley.
Augmented reality gives us something that only Argentinian literary giant Jorge Luis Borges dared dream of–a map as vast as the terrain it demarcates. Pokemon Go is the first landmark augmented reality experience, but definitely not the last. Right now I imagine there are developers working on AR treasure hunts, games, and enterprise applications that will become the Pokemon Go of their various categories. All of these will form a collective commons of AR content: the Augnet.
The Augnet will allow us to annotate the world we see around us. Forget looking up Yelp reviews on your phone. You’ll be able to see Yelp reviews hovering in front of the restaurants you pass on the street. If you thought Amazon showrooming was a big deal now, just wait until you’re able to walk into a brick and mortar store wearing your AR device and see the Amazon prices and Buy Now buttons for items superimposed on those items in the real world.
One big milestone for the Augnet will be when someone develops a user generated content platform. I’ll be able to annotate my surroundings any way I wish. I’ll be able to help somebody get to my house by adding a line of arrows to the route on Google Street View. I’ll stash AR copies of my pictures and videos at the places they were taken, like the family beach cabin or on the Pacific Crest Trail, for others to explore. I’ll stand atop the Arc de Triomphe, taking in the Paris skyline, and see pins dropped on attractions that a friend thought I’d like to see. Journalists will embed digital content in places where events happened. You’ll enter an empty stadium and get to select any number of previous games or concerts that happened there and watch them unfold again, precisely where they happened the first time.
What’s more, we’ll be able to see simultaneous layers of digital information, the Augnet. I might go into the city on Friday night gazing through my Movies Playing, New Restaurants, and Historical Places of Interest filters, and pass through multiple layers of digital content superimposed on the world.
There will be a social/message element to the Augnet. We’ll communicate with each other constantly in this new medium, sharing our feeds. When we want to fully immerse, we’ll enter full res VR.
There will be a digital divide between those who have access to the Augnet and those who don’t. Borges, in his little gem of a story (that up there is the entirety of the story, btw), predicts that a map that covers its territory to scale will fall to ruin, inhabited by “Animals and Beggars.” And what a gorgeous line this is: they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters.
There will be those who live inside the map and those who live inside the territory it defines. There will be gaps between these two experiences, flaws of virtual cartography that expose the fault lines between people. These past two weeks, in a way, have been an example of groups of people adhering to competing maps of the world. There’s the dystopian map of a frightened, weak America divided into ethnic tribes, and a map that portrays a more unified America that derives its strength from its diversity. It’s no coincidence that the propagator of the darker of these visions is best known as a reality TV star.
Maps don’t just capture reality. The create reality. I was shocked recently to discover that Victoria, British Columbia lies on the same latitudinal line as the town I grew up in, Mount Vernon, Washington. Visiting Victoria as a kid was always a treat because its fusion of double decker buses and totem poles, of High Tea and Potlatch, suggested a culture far removed from the American farm town where I lived. It seemed farther than it really was. Growing up in a border state taught me that there was a difference between geographical proximity and cultural distance. This is how reality is sculpted by maps. This is what it means to live in the hyperreal.