Thursday, August 2, 2018

The Power of Google Maps and the Decline of Local Knowledge

Once upon a time, people learned the names of their communities by listening to their neighbors speak. Then some time in the age of print people started to read them off maps; it has always struck me that Havre-de-Grace, Maryland is pronounced haverdeegrace, which obviously comes from reading the name. Non French speakers who learned the name orally would presumably have rendered it something like Ahvdegrah.

Then real estate people got into the act, changing the names of places or inventing new ones to appeal to buyers. Just over the past decade Maryland has seen the imaginary place called "North Bethesda" move from the Houses For Sale column to the news pages, and last year I actually heard some one use it non-ironically to describe where he lived.

And now we have a new arbiter of place names, Google Maps:
The Detroit neighborhood now regularly called Fishkorn (pronounced FISH-korn), but previously known as Fiskhorn (pronounced FISK-horn)? That was because of Google Maps.
Surely that was just a typo?

What impresses me about all these changes is that they bespeak the decline of local knowledge and local continuity. We moderns move around a lot; not counting dorm rooms I have lived in about 15 different houses and apartments in about 14 neighborhoods. In many of those places I never knew a single long-time resident. A few of those places had widely known names, like Dinkytown in Minneapolis, but many did not. It seems to me that a real community (whatever that means) would resist any attempt by distant tech companies to change its name, clinging proudly to tradition. Which we don't do.

The way we name our homes tells us something about us, and these days we learn ours online.

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