It turns out that Google Maps is more fallible than you might want to think. Just look at German artist Simon Weckert, who managed to create a virtual traffic jam without a single car on the road. Why he did it, though, is the most interesting part.
You may be asking, how is that even possible? Well, watch the video below and see if you can piece it together:
The video shows Weckert walking down the road with a little red wagon loaded with 99 smartphones. (Motherboard spoke with Weckert and said they were rented; Weckert’s website says they’re second hand.) All the phones are set to navigate down this street. And as Weckert slowly walks, you can watch as “traffic” appears on the map: what starts off as a green, healthy-moving traffic flow slowly turns into the angry red that signals a traffic jam. There isn’t a single car on the road. It’s just Weckert’s phones and some cyclists.
Google Maps is a pretty cool technology when it works. Not only can you navigate via this digital map, but it’s also capable of providing you live updates of traffic, speed traps, accidents, slowdowns, and more. But all that data comes from people carrying a smartphone. Here’s more from Business Insider:
All iPhones that have Google Maps open and Android phones that have location services turned on send anonymous bits of data back to Google. This allows the company to analyze the total number of cars, and how fast they’re going, on a road at any given time.
Other popular GPS mapping apps, like Apple Maps, Waze, Nokia’s HERE maps, and Mapquest, all offer traffic information, but the advantage Google has is the sheer number of people who use it, and the amount of data it has.
Google is able to predict traffic based on longstanding patterns, data from local departments of transportation, and user-reported incidents in order to provide a by-the-moment update of roads all around the world. As then-lead project manager of Google Maps, Amanda Leicht Moore, told Business Insider, the only reason this whole system works is because of trust. We have to trust that Google Maps knows the fastest route from Point A to Point B.
Weckert’s performance, titled “Google Maps Hacks” on his website, is pointedly shaking up the inherent trust we hold in technology. Here’s how Moritz Ahlert explains it in “The Power of Virtual Maps”:
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 behaviour, 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.
In non-art speak, Weckert is saying that Google Maps has fundamentally changed our expectations of maps in general and that it’s easy to find our very personalities changed as a result. To go even further, we’re basically just handing a corporation heaps of information to make our commute to be a little more convenient.
It’s also a funny play on how much space we give to cars themselves, as Weckert explained to Motherboard:
Wreckert told Motherboard that he did the hack/art installation to get people to think about the space we give to cars in public life and the data we rely on everyday.
“Isn’t it crazy [how] much space is used by a car in a city compared to the usage?” he said. “The hack shows us what is possible with this technology and who we rely on.”
And then there are all the edge case implications, from criminal spoofing traffic to divert people into or out of a crowded area, or autonomous vehicles getting sent into general chaos. There’s a lot a person can create with a few dozen smartphones.
Weckert’s installation confronts us with a “hack” in the system. How do we react? How does our relationship to that technology change? Should we be rethinking the access we give to Google if it’s this easy for a single person to create the appearance of utter traffic chaos? How much of our lives, our streets and lives, revolve around it?