Sometimes the miraculous time-saving conveniences we’ve come to depend on can have the opposite effect, as artist Simon Wickert recently demonstrated, ambling about the streets of Berlin at a Huck Finn-ish pace, towing a squeaky-wheeled red wagon loaded with 99 secondhand smartphones.
Each phone had a SIM card, and all were running the Google Maps app.
A near-instantaneous "virtual traffic jam” on Google Maps, even though bicyclists seem to vastly outnumber motorists along Wickert's route.
As a Google spokesperson told 9to5 Google’s Ben Schoon shortly after news of Wickert’s stunt began to spread:
Traffic data in Google Maps is refreshed continuously thanks to information from a variety of sources, including aggregated anonymized data from people who have location services turned on and contributions from the Google Maps community.
In other words, had you checked your phone before heading out to the Baumhaus an der Mauer (Treehouse on the Wall), the Urban Art Clash Gallery, OMA’s Café, or some other spot close to Wickert’s little red wagon’s trail of terror—like Google’s Berlin office—you might have thought twice about your intended path, or even going at all, seeing bridges and streets change from a free and easy green to an ostensibly gridlocked red.
As long as Wickert kept moving, he was able to continue fooling the algorithm into thinking 99 humans were all using their phone's Maps app for navigational purposes in a small, congested area.
Obviously, a couple of buses could easily be responsible for carrying 99 smartphones in active use, but it’s unlikely those phones owners would be consulting the map app in the passenger seats, when they could be scrolling through Instagram or playing Candy Crush.
Wickert also discovered that his virtual traffic jam disappeared whenever a car passed his wagonload.
The spokesperson who engaged with Schoon put a good-natured face on Google’s response to Wickert’s hack, saying, “We’ve launched the ability to distinguish between cars and motorcycles in several countries including India, Indonesia and Egypt, though we haven’t quite cracked traveling by wagon. We appreciate seeing creative uses of Google Maps like this as it helps us make maps work better over time.”
Meanwhile, the artist’s puckish stunt, which he describes as a “performance and installation,” seems anchored by sincere philosophical questions, as evidenced by the inclusion on his website of the below excerpt from "The Power of Virtual Maps," urban researcher Moritz Ahlert’s recent essay in the Hamburger Journal für Kulturanthropologie, :
The advent of Google’s Geo Tools began in 2005 with Maps and Earth, followed by Street View in 2007. They have since become enormously more technologically advanced. Google’s virtual maps have little in common with classical analog maps. The most significant difference is that Google’s maps are interactive – scrollable, searchable and zoomable. Google’s map service has fundamentally changed our understanding of what a map is, how we interact with maps, their technological limitations, and how they look aesthetically.
In this fashion, Google Maps makes virtual changes to the real city. Applications such as Airbnb and Carsharing have an immense impact on cities: on their housing market and mobility culture, for instance. There is also a major impact on how we find a romantic partner, thanks to dating platforms such as Tinder, and on our self-quantifying behavior, thanks to the nike jogging app. Or map-based food delivery apps like deliveroo or foodora. All of these apps function via interfaces with Google Maps and create new forms of digital capitalism and commodification. Without these maps, car sharing systems, new taxi apps, bike rental systems and online transport agency services such as Uber would be unthinkable. An additional mapping market is provided by self-driving cars; again, Google has already established a position for itself.
With its Geo Tools, Google has created a platform that allows users and businesses to interact with maps in a novel way. This means that questions relating to power in the discourse of cartography have to be reformulated. But what is the relationship between the art of enabling and techniques of supervision, control and regulation in Google’s maps? Do these maps function as dispositive nets that determine the behavior, opinions and images of living beings, exercising power and controlling knowledge? Maps, which themselves are the product of a combination of states of knowledge and states of power, have an inscribed power dispositive. Google’s simulation-based map and world models determine the actuality and perception of physical spaces and the development of action models.
Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Join Ayun’s company Theater of the Apes in New York City this March for her book-based variety series, Necromancers of the Public Domain, and the world premiere of Greg Kotis’ new musical, I AM NOBODY. Follow her @AyunHalliday.