google 2

I am thinking about writing a novel featuring a model railway enthusiast who has spent 40 years building a 1:76.2 scale model of Clapham Junction in his attic.  One day his wife phones to say she has fallen down a flight of steps and is currently on Platform 7 at Clapham Junction nursing a broken leg.   Our model-maker thanks her profusely, retires to the attic, and spends several hours fabricating a perfect model of his spouse lying prone on the platform.  He rings her once to ask, “right leg or left leg?”

Here lies my concern when I hear that Google has entered the world of high definition maps to guide the driverless cars of the future.  I am sure that the result will be a stunning carbon copy of reality that will enable me to take a virtual trip to Birmingham.  And if there is the odd glitch, so what. It is unthinkable that such a vast accomplishment would be without error.

But would I want to make the real journey on hard tarmac in a vehicle guided solely by its doppelganger buzzing around Google’s cyber toy-town?  A soft bug in the synthetic world will be a hard bug in the real one.

Of course there are technical solutions.  Some say the answer will lie in crowd-sourcing; constant user chit-chat keeping model and reality in step.   My concerns run deeper. What sort of people are building this new world?  The digital-age has favoured those who love scale, complexity and intricacy.  Model makers.  The online world is a model world but one we find very useful because information seems to live as happily in a model as in reality.

But people and things cannot live in a model.  The success of Amazon lies not in its models but in “fulfilment”; the mouse click really does turn into a parcel on the doormat.

I thought Google was heading the right way with its smart car.  I hope this HD mapping is not really a retreat to the comfort zone of the train set in the attic.

One other thought.  Map makers are not model makers.  Map makers simplify the world to make it understandable rather than strive to build an increasingly perfect copy of reality.  Of all the properties I would want from a map, “HD” would come pretty low down the list.

The London Tube Map is a case in point.  Now how do I get to Clapham Junction?