Maps:how the physical world conquered the virtual

World map 1600

If we look back to the early days when the Internet was first exploding into public consciousness, in the 1980’s, and even more so in the boom years of the 90’s, what we often find is a kind of utopian sentiment around this new form of “space”. It wasn’t only that a whole new plane of human interaction seemed to be unfolding into existence almost overnight, it was that “cyberspace” seemed poised to swallow the real world- a prospect which some viewed with hopeful anticipation and others with doom.

Things have not turned out that way.

The person who invented the term “cyberspace”, William Gibson, the science fiction author of the classic- Neuromancer- himself thinks that when people look back on the era when the Internet emerged what will strike them as odd is how we could have confused ourselves into thinking that the virtual world and our work-a-day one were somehow distinct. Gibson characterizes this as the conquest of the real by the virtual. Yet, one can see how what has happened is better thought of as the reverse by taking even a cursory glance at our early experience and understanding of cyberspace.

Think back, if you are old enough, and you can remember, when the online world was supposed to be one where a person could shed their necessarily limited real identity for a virtual one. There were plenty of anecdotes, not all of them insidious, of people faking their way through a contrived identity the unsuspecting thought was real: men coming across as women, women as men, the homely as the beautiful. Cyberspace seemed to level traditional categories and the limits of geography. A poor adolescent could hobnob with the rich and powerful. As long as one had an Internet connection, country of origin and geographical location seemed irrelevant.

It should not come as any surprise, then, that  an early digital reality advocate such as Nicole Stenger could end her 1991 essay Mind is a leaking rainbow with the utopian flourish:

According to Satre, the atomic bomb was what humanity had found to commit collective suicide. It seems, by contrast, that cyberspace, though born of a war technology, opens up a space for collective restoration, and for peace. As screens are dissolving, our future can only take on a luminous dimension! / Welcome to the New World! (58)

Ah, if only.

Even utopian rhetoric was sometimes tempered with dystopian fears. Here is Mark Pesce the inventor of VRML code in his 1997 essay Ignition:

The power over this realm has been given to you. You are weaving the fabric of perception in information perceptualized. You could – if you choose – turn our world into a final panopticon – a prison where all can been seen and heard and judged by a single jailer. Or you could aim for its inverse, an asylum run by the inmates. The esoteric promise of cyberspace is of a rule where you do as you will; this ontology – already present in the complex system know as Internet – stands a good chance of being passed along to its organ of perception.

The imagery of a “final panopticon” is doubtless too morbid for us at this current stage whatever the dark trends. What is clear though is that cyberspace is a dead metaphor for what the Internet has become- we need a new one. I think we could do worse than the metaphor of the map. For, what the online world has ended up being is less an alternative landscape than a series of cartographies by which we organize our relationship with the world outside of our computer screens, a development with both liberating and troubling consequences.

Maps have always been reflections of culture and power rather than reflections of reality. The fact that medieval maps in the West had Jerusalem in their centers wasn’t expressing a geologic but a spiritual truth although few understood the difference. During the Age of Exploration what we might think of as realistic maps were really navigational aids for maritime trading states, a latent fact present in what the mapmakers found important to display and explain.

The number and detail of maps along with the science of cartography rose in tandem with the territorial anchoring of the nation-state. As James C. Scott points out in his Seeing Like a State maps were one of the primary tools of the modern state whose ambition was to make what it aimed to control “legible” and thus open to understanding by bureaucrats in far off capitals and their administration.

What all of this has to do with the fate of cyberspace, the world where we live today, is that the Internet, rather than offering us an alternative version of physical space and an escape hatch from its problems has instead evolved into a tool of legibility. What is made legible in this case is us. Our own selves and the micro-world’s we inhabit have become legible to outsiders. Most of the time these outsiders are advertisers who target us based on our “profile”, but sometimes this quest to make individuals legible is by the state- not just in the form of standardized numbers and universal paperwork but in terms of the kinds of information a state could only once obtain by interrogation- the state’s first crack at making individuals legible.      

A recent book by Google CEO Eric Schmitt co-authored with foreign policy analyst Jared Cohen- The New Digital Age is chalk full of examples of corporate advertisers’ and states’ new powers of legibility. They write:

The key advance ahead is personalization. You’ll be able to customize your devices- indeed much of the technology around you- to fit your needs, so that the environment reflects your preferences.

At your fingertips will be an entire world’s worth of digital content, constantly updated, ranked and categorized to help you find the music, movies, shows, books, magazines, blogs and art you like. (23)

Or as journalist Farhad Manjoo quotes Amit Singhal of Google:

I can imagine a world where I don’t even need to search. I am just somewhere outside at noon, and my search engine immediately recommends to me the nearby restaurants that I’d like because they serve spicy food.

There is a very good reason why I did not use the world “individuals” in place of “corporate advertisers” above- a question of intent. Whose interest does the use of such algorithms to make the individual legible ultimately serve? If it my interest then search algorithms might tell me where I can get a free or even pirated copy of the music, video etc I will like so much. It might remind me of my debts, and how much I would save if I skip dinner at the local restaurant and cook my quesadillas at home. Google and all its great services, along with similar tech giants aiming to map the individual such as FaceBook aren’t really “free”. While using them I am renting myself to advertisers. All maps are ultimately political.

With the emergence mobile technology and augmented reality the physical world has wrestled the virtual one to the ground like Jacob did to the angel. Virtual reality is now repurposed to ensconce all of us in our own customized micro-world. Like history? Then maybe your smartphone or Google Glasses will bring everything historical around you out into relief. Same if you like cupcakes and pastry or strip clubs. These customized maps already existed in our own heads, but now we have the tools for our individualized cartography- the only price being constant advertisements.

There’s even a burgeoning movement among the avant garde, if there can still be said to be such a thing, against this kind of subjection of the individual to corporate dictated algorithms and logic. Inspired by mid-20 century leftists such as Guy Debord with his Society of the Spectacle practitioners of what is called psychogeography are creating and using apps such as Drift  that lead the individual on unplanned walks around their own neighborhoods, or Random GPS that have your car’s navigation system remind you of the joys of getting lost.

My hope is that we will see other versions of these algorithm inverters and breakers and not just when it comes to geography. How about similar things for book recommendations or music or even dating? We are creatures that sometimes like novelty and surprise, and part of the wonder of life is fortuna–  its serendipitous accidents.

Yet, I think these tools will most likely ramp up the social and conformist aspects of our nature. We shouldn’t think they will be limited to corporate persuaders. I can imagine “Catholic apps” that allow one to monitor one’s sins, and a whole host of funny and not so funny ways groups will use the new methods of making the individual legible to tie her even closer to the norms of the group.

A world where I am surrounded by a swirl of constant spam, or helpful and not so helpful suggestions, the minute I am connected, indeed, a barrage that never ends except when I am sleeping because I am always connected, may be annoying, but it isn’t all that scary. It’s when we put these legibility tools in the hands of the state that I get a little nervous.

As Schmitt and Cohen point out one of the most advanced forms of such efforts at mapping the individual is an entity called Platforma Mexico which is essentially a huge database that is able to identify any individual and tie them to their criminal record.

Housed in an underground bunker in the Secretariat of Public Security compound in Mexico City, this large database integrates intelligence, crime reports and real time data from surveillance cameras and other inputs from across the country. Specialized algorithms can extract patterns, project social graphs and monitor restive areas for violence and crime as well as for natural disasters and other emergencies.  (174)

The problem I have here is the blurring of the line between the methods used for domestic crime and those used for more existential threats, namely- war. Given that crime in the form of the drug war is an existential threat for Mexico this might make sense, but the same types of tools are being perfected by authoritarian states such as China, which is faced not with an existential threat but with growing pressures for reform, and also in what are supposed to be free societies like the United States where a non-existential threat in the form of terrorism- however already and potentially horrific- is met with similar efforts by the state to map individuals.

Schmitt and Cohen point out how there is a burgeoning trade between autocratic countries and their companies which are busy perfecting the world’s best spyware. An Egyptian firm Orascom owns a 25 percent share of the panopticonic sole Internet provider in North Korea. (96) Western companies are in the game as well with the British Gamma Group’s sale of spyware technology to Mubarak’s Egypt being just one recent example.

Yet, if corporations and the state are busy making us legible there has also been a democratization of the capacity for such mapmaking, which is perhaps the one of the reasons why states are finding governance so difficult. Real communities have become almost as easy to create as virtual ones because all such communities are merely a matter of making and sustaining human relationships and understanding their maps.

Schmitt and Cohen imagine virtual governments in exile waiting in the wings to strike at the precipitous moment. Political movements can be created off the shelf supported by their own ready made media entities and the authors picture socially conscious celebrities and wealthy individuals running with this model in response to crises. Every side in a conflict can now have its own media wing whose primary goal is to shape and own the narrative. Even whole bureaucracies could be preserved from destruction by keeping its map and functions in the cloud.

Sometimes virtual worlds remain limited to the way they affect the lives of individuals but are politically silent. A popular mass multiplayer game such as World of Warcraft may have as much influence on an individual’s life as other invisible kingdoms such as those of religion. An imagined online world becomes real the moment its map is taken as a prescription for the physical world.  Are things like the Hizb ut-Tahrir which aims at the establishment of a pan-Islamic caliphate or The League of the South which promotes a second secession of American states “real” political organizations or fictional worlds masking themselves as political movements? I suppose only time will tell.

Whatever the case, society seems torn between the mapmakers of the state who want to use the tools of the virtual world to impose order on the physical and an almost chaotic proliferation using the same tools by groups of all kinds creating communities seemingly out of thin air.

All this puts me in mind of nothing so much as China Mieville’s classic of New Weird fiction City and the City. It’s a crime novel with the twist that it takes place in two cities- Beszel  and Ul Qoma that exist in the same physical space and are superimposed on top of one another. No doubt Mieville was interested in telling a good story, and getting us thinking about the questions of borders and norms, but it’s a pretty good example of the mapping I’ve been talking about- even if it is an imagined one.

In City and the City an inhabitant of Beszel  isn’t allowed to see or interact with what’s going on in Ul Qoma and vice versa otherwise they commit a crime called “breach” and there’s a whole secretive bi-city agency called Breach that monitors and prosecutes those infractions. There’s even an imaginary (we are led to believe) third city “Orciny” that exist on-top of Beszel and Ul Qoma and secretly controls the other two.

This idea of multiple identities- consumer, political- overlaying the same geographical space seems a perfect description of our current condition. What is missing here, though, is the sharp borders imposed by Breach. Such borders might appear quicker and in different countries than one might have supposed thanks to the recent revelations that the United States has been treating the Internet and its major American companies like satraps. Only now has Silicon Valley woken up to the fact that its close relationship with the American security state threatens its “transparency” based business- model with suicide. The re-imposition of state sovereignty over the Internet would mean a territorialization of the virtual world- a development that would truly constitute its conquest by the physical. To those possibilities I will turn next time…

2 comments on “Maps:how the physical world conquered the virtual

  1. […] individuals become a kind of territory mined for resources by those capable of performing the data mining. For the individual being […]

  2. […] Imagine it this way: you walk into a store to potentially purchase a high-end product. The salesperson wears the equivalent of Google Glasses. They ask for your name and you give it to them. The salesperson is able to, without you ever knowing, gather up everything publically available about you on the web, after which they can buy your profile, purchasing, and browser history, again surreptitiously, perhaps by just blinking, from a big data company like Axicon and tailor their pitch to you. This is similar to what happens now when you are solicited through targeted ads while browsing the Internet, and perhaps the real future of such targeted advertising, as the success of FaceBook in mobile shows, lies in the physical rather than the virtual world. […]

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