Motherboard

Sense of Direction

Behold the next evolution of map apps—a realtime geolocation map that respond to your memories, regrets, and fears.

by Pete Segall
Jun 27 2019, 7:47pm

Glenn Harvey

Today's Terraform story imagines a future when our app-based maps know more about us than we may know about ourselves. Enjoy. -the ed.


The map didn’t talk to everyone who opened it. Nor did it really talk to everyone who experienced it. Talking was the simplest way of describing the sensation, according to those the map spoke to, as it were. A fuller way of putting what happened was that, upon opening the app and entering a destination, the user — what else do we call them? — felt a force flicker through her. One said it was like fingers were walking across his brain. Another said she believed her eyes had been turned backwards. She looked at her screen and what had resolved bore unmistakable traces of her own life. Memories, desires, habits, regrets, fears.

The contrivances of the map sometimes weren't evident until the very last. The addict on the highway looks out the window to see a casino. The agoraphobic is delivered into the teeth of the most ossified rush hour traffic. A Liverpool man going to a new job is directed through a series of side streets that lead him past an old lover’s house. From what was a suggestion of a voice more than a sound itself came phrases, observations: I didn’t expect this. Do you remember that. There is nothing more to be done. Hence the notion that the map was speaking. It grew sophisticated, crueler, but also at times illuminating and at others cryptic. A woman in Little Armenia in Los Angeles — which she was desperate to leave — looking for a pet store was told to go to Barracks City; after hours of searching and increasingly frantic phone calls and doubling back, a highway patrolman told her that there was no such place as Barracks City.

The app’s developer released updates in response to some very alarming reviews but the map continued its work. If you were the drunk tourist in Astoria, Queens instructed that the only way to board the R train was by going down onto the track, what is more stirring: the reflexive impulse to look one more time at the map or the shadow of a voice that says, Terrance, everyone here is just visiting? Trips ended where they started. Trips made turns head on into busy one way streets. Trips urged her to leave here already and turned out to be a series of endless detours and reroutes.

For the developers and a few other interested parties the accelerating question was, what did the map want? What was it doing by insinuating itself inside a handful of random users? Nothing accumulated; of the incidents reported there were no patterns or links. The actions were discrete, fractal.

In Brompton, outside of Toronto, Sneha Pujara began driving for a rideshare company in the mornings after she dropped her children at school. Her husband’s consultancy was foundering. The influx of cash, however modest, was much needed. On a morning in early February she was assigned a fare who wanted to go to a motel in the vicinity of Pearson Airport. He got into the Toyota minivan and she put the motel’s name into the app.

There was a slight pinch at the back of her jaw. Absorbed thinking of the pinch, the brief bright sharp pressure, she followed the directions blindly. Her thoughts turned to her children marching into school, into an exquisite darkness past double-doors. She saw snowdrifts the size of elephants. She saw herself at university, formlessly hopeful. She took no notice that she was headed nowhere near the airport, and in fact was going in the opposite direction. She saw her father reading Seneca before the sun was up. She breathed in a voice that said You had no way of knowing. A stray cat asleep under a searing sun. Her daughter crying in a movie theatre. Crumbs on the kitchen table. The scent of lavender.

The app announced that they had reached their destination. They were on the berm beside a gravel road. Before them was a small, snow-covered field. Neither knew where they were or how long they had been driving. Sneha and her passenger got out. The white surface was pristine and malign. Abhorrent mildness; it bore no resemblance to the world they inhabited but also sang of what they felt each day. The field’s elusive quality hung over them, the closest thing around to darkness. They were unsure if they would ever leave. Every map is a narrative. This map was deep inside of them. It searched for the ending they had already written for themselves.