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Impossible Maps | Week 1 | Mapping, Navigating = A Political Activity

Homework for the week:


This is also a response to Justin O'Beirne's essay on Google Maps & Apple Maps comparison.

In "Author as Producer", Walter Benjamin believed that cultural production is intrinsically political. The way I see it, every factoid, character, story, and what-have-you inscribed on a medium implies a choice (conscious or not) made by the author that the included is more important than what is excluded. An obvious, recent example would be Facebook's curation of its feed and the resulting echo chamber.

Continuing in Benjamin's framework, maps as cultural productions are also intrinsically political, and are contributing to the production of spaces. But to what extent? How is giving directions from my home to ITP a political activity? In what ways maps and physical space affect each other?

I have two questions concerning the most used map apps, Google Maps & Apple Maps:

  1. When does a map imply and implicate political activities?

  2. Is using a map, like the choice to keep using Facebook, a political decision? Does the burden and responsibility also fall on the user?


Curation Implies A Political Choice

I think one key indicator of a political activity is the act of curating (one is more important than another), either by humans or by an algorithm.

So the act giving direction from point A from point B is not necessarily a political activity, but the inclusion of point A and point B is.

Say, there are office X and restaurant Y located on the same address (this happens a lot in developing areas), but the map app only has information on office X. Finding and navigating to restaurant Y, then, becomes harder and users would have to use office X as a navigation proxy. Office X is more important than restaurant Y according to the map's algorithm. Replace office X with a city and restaurant Y with a neighboring small town and we have a problem of a more significant scale.

O'Beirne's essay shows that Google and Apple have different priorities in what they include on their map. While I wonder what the motivations behind these priorities are, I also think it's more important to understand how personalization in these maps work. The implications of the curation of geography become more serious when the map becomes the only thing a user uses to navigate in their entire life. The map is the glass the user is viewing the world with.


Map Literacy = Media Literacy?

Of course, not having everything on a map is not always an issue. And I doubt we will have a huge public discourse on biased web maps anytime soon, because we collectively are satisfied with the service and curation provided by Google and Apple (also because it is not a social media platform that is prone to malicious content).

But again, I think it is important to be aware that when we use a digital service, we become subjected to the algorithms that an actual person built.

I also think that it is highly, highly important to be aware that our attention (that we only have so much to begin with) is being traded for the service we're given for "free". Our attention shapes our cognition and experiences, and in that sense, we are trading a part of our individual experience as human beings for a service.

...Which might be fine for some people. But as much as the technology providers should strive to deliver better and unbiased services, we should also strive to become an empowered user, an empowered contributor to the production of the spaces we occupy.

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