To anyone who has driven during rush hour, Google Maps feels like a godsend. It can see a traffic jam coming 20 miles away and route you around it. But of course, Google doesn’t actually see the traffic jam. It sees the GPS coordinates of maybe a few dozen phones sitting in close proximity on the highway, moving slowly. And from that, it interprets a slowdown.
It’s a small but important distinction between data and reality explored by Simon Weckert in his new performative art piece, Google Maps Hacks. In it, he drags a red wagon around Berlin, filled to the brim with smartphones. And as he goes, you can see a red line appear on the map. He’s a one-man traffic jam, exploiting the simplest hole in Google’s data collection process.
The gesture is a hilarious, low-tech troll of a $1 trillion technological giant. But it’s also a meaningful illustration that, while Google may be the world’s largest data broker, that data is an abstraction, and it’s how Google translates that data into pixels we see on our phones that gives the information any specific meaning. Google Maps isn’t really seeing a traffic jam. It’s seeing a bunch of smartphones in one spot.
“This process is pointing out the fact that we are highly focused on the data and tend to see [Google] as objective, unambiguous and interpretation-free. In doing so, a blindness arises against the processes that data generates and the assumption that numbers speak for themselves,” writes Weckert on his site (declining an interview). “Thus data is viewed as the world itself, forgetting that the numbers are only representing a model of the world.”
In other words, Google Maps is not the real world. It’s simply one, hackable portrait of it. And all it takes is a kid’s wagon full of old smartphones to prove it.