going nowhere in wee argleton

As the season of snow, darkness, cold comes upon us, it is comforting for me to know that I have a place I can go to escape such inhospitable realities: Argleton, Lancashire, in England.

As the season of snow, darkness, cold comes upon us, it is comforting for me to know that I have a place I can go to escape such inhospitable realities: Argleton, Lancashire, in England.

Located in the bucolic countryside, about 17 kilometres northeast of Liverpool, this locale nuzzles beside the friendly little town of Aughton (population 8,342), and features things like chiropractors for the sore of bone,

job services for the unemployed, and dating services for the lonely.

What really makes this little town such an attractive retreat from reality, though, is that, though you can plot a course to it from Liverpool on Google Earth, it doesn’t actually exist.

It is not a place on earth, but a glitch in a database – and a glitch that is quickly becoming one of those periodic internet sensations.

Roy Baleflield, a blogger local to the area, perhaps initiated the craze, with his tongue-in-cheek photo-essay about

his expedition to the phantom location – a place he speculates could be “like the Hellmouth in Sunnydale (in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV show), except rather than being a portal for evil beings, it acts as the doorway for forces of debasement, parody, travesty and corruption; forces of error that subtly undermine and distort….”

Of course it turns out to be not much more than a rundown piece of farmland, and the adventure concludes with Balefield enjoying a pint of Clark’s Classic Long Blonde in a local pub.

In a less literary, more enterprising vein, a Canadian company (Zazzle.com) is already offering a range of Argleton T-shirts (“Where in the world is Argleton?”, “Argleton is for Lovers”), and baseball caps labeled “New York, London, Paris, Argleton” and “I (love) Argleton….”

That this phantom city has captured so much attention has meant some red faces for some very big technology companies.

Google has conceded it has no explanation for how this place name ended up on its map of the Aughton area; and the company that provides Google with its mapping software, Tele Atlas, admits it has no idea how this kind of error got into its database.

Furthermore, the consequences of the glitch could have more than just social embarrassment impact on the players involved.

Tele Atlas, the company that produced the defective map in the first place, is a very large operation with corporate headquarters in Holland and operational headquarters in Belgium.

Recently purchased for about $4.5 billion Canadian dollars by TomTom, a Dutch manufacturer of automotive navigation systems, it is a major player in the geographic informations systems business, providing digital mapping information covering more than two hundred countries.

Just a year ago, it concluded a deal with Google to provide digital imagery for Google Earth with digital imagery; now, the famous existence of that silly little nonexistent town has created quite a blow to its credibility.

The digital navigation market is both burgeoning and highly competitive at the moment, with Google looking to establish itself as the default go-to source for travelers everywhere.

The service has grown to involve a good deal more than just showing maps of highways, streets and buildings.

It also involves locating and mapping all kinds of services (hotels, restaurants, shopping malls, you name it) at a level of detail that makes for a databases of mind-boggling complexity.

What is being put on offer is not a static image of pretty much the whole world at any one moment in time (itself a very daunting task), but a dynamic, changing, and aggregating image of the world at any point in time.

Given the sheer volume of data being brought in, edited, included or deleted, it stands to reason that something is going to go a bit wonky sometimes.

Argleton is just such an anomaly, and is probably only one among many that exist in the world as Google shows it.

It just happened to crop up in a place conspicuous enough to draw attention.

Though conspiracy theorists have suggested that it is the result of some kind of hack into Google Earth’s database, and that the name is perhaps an anagram for “Not Real G” or “Not Large,” the most probable explanation is that it is a stray bit of data, with the name of the village of Aughton mistyped and gone astray.

Tele Atlas has announced that it will soon be removing Argleton from the offending map – an announcement that has, predictably, occasioned a “Save Argleton” movement campaign among the more whimsy-prone elements on the internet.

So, if you are looking for a place to escape from reality for a while, you had better move fast.

It is in the nature of imaginary places that they come and go quickly and unpredictably – which is reality, however unpleasant, is usually the safer place to be.

Rick Steele is a technology junkie

who lives in Whitehorse.