An Artist Tricks Google Maps Into Creating a Virtual Traffic Jam, Using a Little Red Wagon & 99 Smartphones

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.

The result?

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 GalleryOMA’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.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

A Plan­e­tary Per­spec­tive: Tril­lions of Pic­tures of the Earth Avail­able Through Google Earth Engine

View and Down­load Near­ly 60,000 Maps from the U.S. Geo­log­i­cal Sur­vey (USGS)

Ancient Rome in 3D on Google Earth

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.

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