Google Maps, Kerouac's 'On the Road' Combined in a College Thesis

Technology meets literature. A Berlin college student developed a mash-up of Google Maps and Jack Kerouac's novel "On the Road."


As he was preparing to find ideas for his bachelor's thesis, Gregor Weichbrodt, a 25-year-old Berlin college student began reading a book called "Uncreative Writing." That book, by poet and artist Kenneth Goldsmith, got him thinking about creative ways to use language, words and technology.

What he soon came up with was the idea for a mash-up of Google Maps and Jack Kerouac's novel "On the Road," which literally boils the book down to its turn-by-turn road trip essence.

The project, titled "On the Road for 17,527 Miles," has resulted in a 66-page ebook that Weichbrodt is now using as the basis for his college thesis.

Ironically, not one of Kerouac's words is in Weichbrodt's ebook, which is instead filled with the real-world Google Maps-inspired directions for the adventure-filled travels described in the classic 1957 Kerouac novel.

Weichbrodt's ebook begins with directions, and is followed by nothing but many more pages of detailed directions. "Head northwest on W 47th St. toward 7th Ave.," it began. "Take the 1st left onto 7th. Turn right onto W 39th St. Take the ramp onto the Lincoln tunnel. Parts of this road are closed Mon-Fri 4:00–7:00 pm. Entering New Jersey."

So where did Weichbrodt, a communication design major, get such an idea for the project?

Goldsmith's book "pretty much sums up the whole subject and it inspired me to research and experiment with text again," Weichbrodt said in an email reply to an inquiry from eWEEK. He had never planned to take on such an idea, he said.

"I collected ideas in my notebook and suddenly this 'On the Road' idea came up," he wrote. "I was always curious about language and words and how we are surrounded by them. We are so used to hearing and reading words and phrases over and over again that we often miss the absurdity in certain situations, which can be delightful to experience."

And that's where Kerouac's words came into play in his idea, wrote Weichbrodt. "I was also inspired by what the beat generation in your country brought up during these times. The way they experimented with text and also the rebellion against the middle class culture, the drug experiments, the documentation of it and the whole idea of being an author. I was 16 years old when I first touched books from Kerouac or William S. Burroughs."

Inspired by the sum of those parts, Weichbrodt then brainstormed about what to do with them. First, he took the locations where the characters in Kerouac's book traveled using a Google search that had mapped them out, and then he collected it all in a little algorithm, he wrote.

"The algorithm would connect to the Google Direction Service API, sending the waypoints, and the API would give me the directions in response, as well as the time and distance I would have to face on such a journey," he wrote. "I had to do a little workaround to receive the directions for the whole route chapter by chapter."

It took Weichbrodt about an hour to write the code and to copy and paste the list of waypoints into it, he said. "Google is pretty quick in responding with the results, so that took only a few seconds."

Inside his ebook, Weichbrodt summarizes his work as "based on the novel 'On the Road' by Jack Kerouac, and Google Maps Direction Service. The exact and approximate spots Kerouac traveled and described are taken from the book and parsed by Google Direction Service API. The result is a huge direction instruction of 55 pages. The chapters match those of the original book. All in all, as Google shows, the journey takes 272.26 hours (for 17,527 miles)."

So is Weichbrodt now considering taking a trip to follow the route laid out in Kerouac's classic book?

Not a chance, he said.

And in an ironic twist, Weichbrodt said he's not even really a big fan of the book's story.

"I'm not a groupie," he wrote. "I didn't even finish the book in the past. Sometimes I don't finish a book because I immediately become inspired by a sentence or a word in it, so that I would leave it unfinished on my shelf and never touch it again. This is how I work sometimes."

In the end, the mash-up came about because it was a creative way to express Kerouac's book in a unique way.

"I used this book because I felt inspired by it in the past (like many people) and I had an idea of a concept that perfectly fit Kerouac's 'On the Road.'"

Weichbrodt's ebook has also since morphed into something more than just the basis for his thesis. It has also been accepted as part of an exhibition, titled "Poetry Will Be Made By All!," which is being held in Zurich through March 30.