A performance artist named Simon Weckert was able to trick Google Maps into showing there was a traffic jam on a street when there wasn't one.
Weckert simply pulled a wagon filled with 99 cell phones on it. This experiment took place in Berlin, and since a video showing it went public on Saturday, it has fueled a lot of discussion over how Google Maps affects our decisions on where to go and how to get there.
Weckert shows in the video below how the street lines turned red in Google Maps as he walked down the street pulling his 99 phones with the GPS activated.
Because Weckert was making it look like there was a traffic jam on this street, people using Google Maps were actually directed to avoid the street he was on. Weckert writes in this blog post that Google Maps has "fundamentally changed" how we interact with maps because of how it "makes virtual changes to the real city."
Instead of just telling you where thing are, Google Maps tells you what appears to be the best way to get there in that moment. He explains that other popular apps like Airbnb, Tinder, and Uber that rely on virtual maps might not exist without Google Maps. Weckert also points out small businesses rely heavily on Google Maps.
"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?" Weckert wonders in his blog post.
"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."
If Weckert was trying to start a conversation, he succeeded. This project was shared widely on social media and elsewhere. His own tweet about it currently has over 32,000 likes. On the forum Hacker News, many people shared their own experiences with virtual maps manipulating the real world.
"An interesting 'red but no traffic' phenomenon is in Iceland, with roads which are next to scenery viewing points," one user comments. "The roads are mostly empty in this country, but everyone must've slowed down when they saw the breathtaking scenery, and would pull into the viewing point's parking spot to stop and take pictures. On Google Maps, these areas were marked red."
Another user writes that they worked for a "mapping & navigation company" that found people riding in a train past a street can cause the street to appear to have heavy traffic even though there isn't any. One user said people driving slowly during "big snowfalls" can cause traffic to look bad on a virtual map even though it's not and can cause people to be sent to roads where there are no cars because there's too much snow to drive.
Weckert's project does bring up some interesting points: I was recently on a trip to Spain and relied heavily on Google Maps not just to get around but to read restaurant and bar reviews. The app really formed my trip. In our daily lives, we rely on virtual maps to find dates, get around and more. As Weckert noted, maybe we should be thinking about the power these apps have over our lives a little more often.