Apple CEO Tim Cook — astride the world’s largest company by market valuation — made an extraordinary admission of failure last week. In its new iPhone 5 and operating system software, engineers delivered an unreliable maps application. Consumers were outraged. Cook gently steered the offended to competitors’ products as an alternative until Apple does better.
The New York Times minced no words, “It may be the most embarrassing, least usable piece of software Apple has ever unleashed.” But it’s more. A map is more than a map.
One explanation offered is that Apple — the company sold 5 million units of the new phone in the first weekend — underestimated the furor because it did not realize the importance of the map feature to users. What’s the big deal? Fifteen years ago, Google wasn’t even a word.
Maps, it turns out, are more powerful than Apple thought. My father, an immigrant, collected antique maps from the part of his new country he called home. They were beautiful but also helped, in an existential way, to explain where he was.
For earlier generations, as knowledge of the world grew, maps were economic instruments. As print and information distribution evolved, maps followed and began to describe every place we knew or wanted to know. Maps also provided political context to economic realities. There is nothing relative about a map. It describes boundaries — correct, contested, as the case may be — that can be fixed by law. We know where we are, by maps.
So why should we care if a mapping application emerges imperfectly from the largest computer company in the world? Why, among all the possible faults one could find with the core software applications on the iPhone, do maps bring Tim Cook to the corporate porch, to address the multitudes?
Maps don’t just tell us where we are, by inference they tell us where we really are. And where we really are, in the context of the vast flood of information in our complicated post-industrial Western world, is not clear at all.
Not all the Bible study classes, not all the Shariah law, not all the proscriptions of the Torah, can tell us where we really are, though all these try. Apple hit the trip wire of cultural sensitivities that go straight to the heart of mapping our national insecurities. America used to be the shining city on the hill: where are we now?
Our uncertainty has grown in proportion to our mastery of the world and its resources. There is an obvious urgency to our wanting to know. Our tasks are endless, what once seemed easier and more simple is now complex and freighted with contradictions. All our technologies, improving our quality of life and standards of living, are meant to keep us organized enough to improve the chances we know where we really are.
Strange that a simple mapping flaw by the world’s largest corporation would highlight our existential vulnerabilities. This crisis of knowing where we really are doesn’t even have a name, yet. Technologies mask our personal vulnerabilities and when the way is not clear, for even a nanosecond, the internet lights up with complaints. The answers to our mapping problems can’t be outsourced and, ultimately, can’t be answered. Good news for the living, on our worries about mapping, there is a time-limited warranty. When we expire, maps do not matter at all.