🔬 Research summary by Alexandrine Royer (@AlexandrineRoy2), our Educational Program Manager.
[Original paper by Scott McQuire]
Overview: Few among us can now navigate unknown spaces without relying on the assistance of digital maps. Scott McQuire reveals how Google Maps operates as a digital technical object that works to reconfigure our understanding of time, space and contemporary social life.
In the early 2000s, we all remember entering our address into Google Earth and watching in wonder as the planet would tilt and turn and eventually zero into our neighbourhood. Access to satellite imagery via the Internet allowed users to discover remote parts of the globe that were previously little known, shrinking the distance between our locals and faraway places. Digital maps have reconfigured how we navigate and explore urban areas to the extent that Google Maps defines our understanding of space more than we do it. For Scott McQuire, Google Maps has become a key “socio-technical ‘artefact'” that works to “reconfigure the nexus between technology and spatial experience in the 21rst century”.
One of the early lessons of geography is that maps are by no means neutral objects. They carry assumptions about the world order in their distribution of borders, territory and spaces. As noted by McQuire, “a map is less the representation of a pre-existent world but constitutive of world-view.” While mapping was once the task of geographers, cartographers, and other academic elites, the rise of digital maps has led to what Crampton terms ‘populist cartography’. Digital platforms have enabled a reinvention of mapping aimed at the general consumers. Online geomedia, such as Google Maps, carries for McQuire, “distinctive lessons for how we might understand the implication of media technology in the remaking of contemporary social life.”
McQuire points to four factors that contributed to Google Maps’ position at the top of the digital mapping market. For one, Google already had a running geospatial data visualization tool through Google Earth, with the software purchased from Keyhole Technologies. Satellite imagery was no longer restricted to military personnel and space agencies. Its easy online access contributed to Google Maps’ popularity while feeding the data needed to improve its maps. The second factor was Google’s adoption of a ‘participatory strategy’ through opening Maps Application Programming Interface (API) to developers back in 2005. The release of Maps API meant that it could be integrated into external websites, boosting third-party development and securing Maps’ as the largest maps provider in the world. Another factor was the addition of Street View to Maps in 2007. Through Street View, photo images of passing streets becoming “an exclusive and proprietary data source that is now fundamental to Google’s mapping capabilities.” The fourth factor was the launch of the Google maps app in 2008, initially featured as the default map on iPhone and later on Androids.
The trajectory of Maps development shows how the platform is a “technology in motion.” It also reveals Google’s modus operandi of “launch fast and work out any problems later.” The release of Street View came with a set of concerns over Google’s ownership of data and privacy. Google Maps further presented a change in the temporality of the map. Physical maps and directories can become out-of-date as soon as they are published. With digital maps, changes in urban environments are reflected in real-time. For McQuire, “map platforms are symptomatic of changing social relations in which speed has become paramount. To put it another way, the temporalization of the map as a networked platform is symptomatic of the digital technical object”.
Changing the digital ecosystem
Google Maps’ ubiquity as the online mapping tool was not always a foreseeable guarantee. It had to confront rivals such as MapQuest, Amazon, Yahoo and Microsoft in the ‘map wars.’ Aside from the factors previously listed, Google Maps’ success can be attributed to its proprietary internal software platform, Atlas. Atlas is the ‘ground truth’ on which additional data streams can be integrated, such as aerial, satellite imagery and crowdsourcing features (e.g. suggest an edit). Google’s purchase of the verification software reCAPTCHA in 2009 also serves to interpret images from Street View and update the information back into Google Maps.
Google Maps impressive evolution as a mapping device has made the platform an engrained part of the digital ecosystem. It is the platform through which other software operations are built upon, creating an additional source of revenue for the multinational. Maps’ success also rests on the synergy between advertisers and internet users, who can ‘freely’ access maps and in return maintain their accuracy. Users’ data can further signal areas with significant commercial activity, adding to the new ‘areas of interest’ feature. As noted by McQuire, the “capacity to generate new features through combinations of extracted and processed data is now a strategic frontier in digital mapping.”
Google Maps’ ambition is to offer granular-level information on urban spaces that other commercial products will come to depend on. The high-resolution images captured by Street View and information fed by users can facilitate ride-hail drivers in finding correct entrances to buildings. Google’s detailed mapping capacities further its advantageous position towards Smart City developments and the use of driverless cars. Control over these projects is what Bergen suggests to be the new ‘maps wars.’ “Wars that are not only spatial but also temporal, based on the operationalization of ‘real-time’ feedback systems capable of connecting multiple data streams to specific places.” The never-ceasing extraction of data conducted by Google maps on spatial locals, for McQuire, reflects how the physical world is transformed as data.
“In the twenty-first century, it is the stuff of human life itself- from genetics to bodily appearances, mobility, gestures, speech and behaviour- that is being progressively rendered as a productive resource that can only be harvested continuously but also subject to modulation over time”.
From open platforms to proprietary infrastructure
To continue operating as a high-speed data processing platform, Google Maps requires expensive infrastructure ranging from server farms and proprietary software. As previously mentioned, part of the ‘big data’ that runs Google Maps is publicly sourced. While the platform is designed to incentivize users to tinker with results, users receive no corporate stake for their labour. The company refuses to relinquish corporate control of what the OSM has termed a ‘common resource’. Members of the public cannot re-use citizen-sourced information without the company’s permission.
Beyond the data control asymmetries created and enforced by Google Maps, the platform has become a “powerful force in shaping social realities”. Referring to the Ta no Mapa (It’s on the map) Google Maps’ project, residents of Brazilian favelas were asked to provide points of interest within their communities. Researchers noted a disjuncture between residents’ perspectives and Google’s commercial interests. As indicated by McQuire, “Google maps has the potential to impose a similar commercial-commodity orientation over online digital mapping.” Social changes fostered by digital mappings are happening without public oversight over platforms’ decisions and operations.
Governmental efforts to combat disinformation have revealed how regulation of ‘big data’ services is highly challenging, especially given their global reach. While these platforms rely on user-created content, peer-based communication and other forms of horizontal collaboration, companies continue to operate as oligarchies without public consent nor compensation. For McQuire, “the decentralized technical architecture of the Internet and its related digital ecology… have also become the architecture for mass data capture and repackaging user-created content as proprietary services”.
Living with technical objects
Citing Stiegler, McQuire mentions how the rapid expansion of profit-motivated technological invention causes frictions with other domains in society, such as politics and socio-cultural norms. As a form of ‘technological leadership,’ Digitization has created new relations of time and space. As noted by McQuire, “technological ‘leadership’ now extends to how the recursive data-fication enabled by digital communication networks converts the world at large into a ‘techno-geographical milieu’.” With innovations such as Google maps, technical objects lay down their terms of operation first, and social and legal instruments bend to it. The real-time effects of digital networks are reflective of what Siegler termed “hyper-capitalism”, being defined as a “system in which traditionally different sectors – production, logistics, entertainment, marketing and finance – become increasingly integrated and even ‘synchronized’ across the globe.”
Between the lines
McQuire’s exploration of the trajectory of Google Maps provides important insights into how digital platforms more broadly are changing our temporal and spatial experience of the non-digital world. The profit-seeking ambitions of Google mean that the world will be filtered according to these hyper-capitalist interests, with users actively contributing, albeit somewhat unknowingly, to this perception. Although Google Maps may seem like an all-knowing digital technology, many parts of the world remain unmapped.
The datafication of the physical world is skewed to the interests of companies in the Global North. Like those residing in urban slums, specific communities remain in the shadows of global platforms and unlikely to benefit from positive innovations, such as food delivery services, enabled by these technologies. Increased documentation and surveillance of spaces through Street View may also run counter to these communities’ safety and privacy interests. In all, Google Maps merits greater governmental and public scrutiny when it comes to its terms of operation.