Greetings, Archedeliacs. In my last post I drew attention to the costs imposed by “tech” that adds gratuitous layers of remote control to activities that were once easy and straightforward. The resulting hassle is like a tax levied by private commercial entities, adding friction throughout the economy.
Today’s post continues our investigation of state-like behavior by corporations. I am making this essay available without a paywall in the hope it might be shared widely. The comments are also open to all, so have at it. Thank you for reading.
-- Matt Crawford
Google launched Street View in 2007. It added 360-degree, street-level camera angles to its Maps function. One could now zoom down from a Google Earth satellite view to the scene a pedestrian might see. Places one has never been, and may never visit, have become available for full inspection from afar.
By January 2009, the effort was meeting resistance around the world from communities who felt somehow violated by the incursion. In responding to it, the firm chose to focus on objections coming bad countries, characterizing such resistance as just what one would expect from authoritarian “closed information societies.” Openness is good.
A bit of a wrinkle in the PR strategy occurred in the UK in April 2009 when the residents of the village of Broughton in Buckinghamshire blocked a Street View camera car from entering, on the grounds that it was intrusive. This was in a Western nation, not an “authoritarian” regime. Protests against Street View spread through Britain, as well as Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Hong Kong, Ireland, Israel, Italy, New Zealand, Poland, Spain, South Korea, and the United States. When the trouble first started in Broughton, John Hanke, Google’s vice president for Maps, gently but sternly reminded the London Times, “I tend to think that societies like ours come down on the side of information being good for the economy and good for us as individuals.” It is the revanchistes among us, then, who perversely want to hurt “the economy,” and themselves. “It is about giving people powerful information so that they can make better choices.”[i]
Of course, geographical information really does “empower” people. I rely on my phone’s map function whenever I travel to a strange city or an unfamiliar part of my own city. This lends a basic plausibility to Google’s rhetoric. But spreading the light of knowledge, by itself, doesn’t yet amount to a business strategy, does it?
There was a spot of awkwardness when it emerged that Google’s camera cars were using Wi-Fi to suck up data from people’s home networks as they slowly cruised around. Investigators in several countries discovered that this included “names, telephone numbers, credit information, passwords, messages, emails, and chat transcripts, as well as records of online dating, pornography, browsing behavior, medical information, location data, photos, and video and audio files. They concluded that such data packets could be stitched together for a detailed profile of an identifiable person.”[ii]
“We are mortified by what happened,” said the firm’s new, hastily appointed “director of privacy.”[iii] Google said it was due to the work of a rogue engineer, a bad apple who undertook an experiment on his own initiate that somehow found its way into the Street View system—a clerical error. Subsequent investigations by the FCC and thirty-eight state attorneys general found that, on the contrary, it was all part of the plan. But this finding took four years, as the firm simply ignored subpoenas, administrative rulings, civil investigative demands, and other efforts by democratic institutions to hold it accountable to the law, during which time people became habituated to the idea that Google can unilaterally claim the right to photograph and map physical space, to create a master index of the world.[iv] This has been the pattern in every country the firm operates in. Sovereign political entities can only get in the way of this supra-national enterprise.
It makes sense, then, to view these developments in the context of political history. Street View may be understood as part of a long history of mapmaking as an instrument of empire. Political consolidation—gathering power from far-flung territories to an administrative capital—requires that a territory be knowable from afar, and this has always presented challenges to a would-be imperial power.
In his book Seeing Like a State, the Yale anthropologist and political historian James C. Scott writes that towns built in medieval times generally look disordered from an aerial view, in the sense that they have no discernable form. “Streets, lanes, and passages intersect at varying angles with a density that resembles the intricate complexity of some organic processes.” The defensive structures of walls and moats would be outgrown in a town that prospered; “there may be traces of inner walls superseded by outer walls, much like the growth rings of a tree.”[v]
Such towns developed without a master plan or design, but this does not mean that they were confusing to those who lived in them. Scott gives the example of Bruges, a city in Belgium. “One imagines that many of its cobbled streets were nothing more than surfaced footpaths traced by repeated use. For those who grew up in its various quarters, Bruges would have been perfectly familiar, perfectly legible. Its very alleys and lanes would have closely approximated the most common daily movements.”
But for someone arriving from outside, such as a trader or a representative of the king looking to collect taxes or conscript soldiers for military adventures, the city would be hard to orient in; hard to read. The cityscape “could be said to privilege local knowledge over outside knowledge.” Combining an organic metaphor with a linguistic one, Scott writes that the arrangement of the city “functioned spatially in much the same way a difficult or unintelligible dialect would function linguistically. As a semipermeable membrane, it facilitated communication within the city while remaining stubbornly unfamiliar to those who had not grown up speaking this special geographic dialect” (53–4).
This membrane, and the illegibility to outsiders that it maintained, had real political significance: it provided a margin of safety from “control by outside elites. A simple way of determining if this margin exists is to ask if an outsider would have needed a local guide (a native tracker) in order to find her way successfully. If the answer is yes, then the community or terrain in question enjoys at least a small measure of insulation from outside intrusion.”[vi]
From the perspective of the imperial center, knowledge that is scattered and localized in the periphery is an obstacle to central control—unless it can be gathered and collated. All those lanes and alleys need to be mapped.[vii]
The Uberization of London
Though Seeing Like a State was written before Google and Uber existed, I think Scott’s framework allows us to see that Big Tech’s project of enhanced geographic legibility may be understood, yes, as making things more convenient for visitors and new arrivals to any locale, but also—in some sense we need to explore—as a program of political and economic dispossession affecting established residents. Some intuition of this must lay behind the allergic reaction that people around the world have had to the sight of Google’s camera cars prowling through their neighborhoods.
London is very much a medieval city of the sort Scott describes, with about twenty-five thousand streets within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross. When I visit London, I have found myself flagging down a cab even if I need to go only a few blocks, because trying to find my way on foot is mentally exhausting. I almost always get turned around and disoriented, even with the help of the blue dot on my phone and frequent recourse to the compass function.
In 2012, Matt McCabe was studying to become a London taxi driver. The process takes four years, on average, for those who devote themselves to it full time. In an arresting piece of journalism, Jody Rosen told McCabe’s story at length.[viii] To prepare for the licensing exam takes “unnumbered thousands of hours of immersive study, as would-be cabbies undertake the task of committing to memory the entirety of London, and demonstrating that mastery through a progressively more difficult sequence of oral examinations,” conducted in formal attire by examiners who are themselves taxi drivers. Would-be initiates generally work in pairs, calling out routes to one another, with their eyes closed, in a head-bobbing exercise of recall that would look familiar to any serious student of Talmud. They do this while facing each other across a table, in a room filled with giant maps. But the real preparation consists of walking the city, or driving a motorbike with a map attached to the windscreen, to find the most efficient routes. McCabe logged more than fifty thousand miles on a scooter during his period of study, a distance equal to traversing the North American continent sixteen times, but almost entirely within the city center. And such a curriculum is typical for those who seek the Knowledge, as it is called. For the sheer cognitive accomplishment it marks, it has been called the most demanding professional test of any kind, comparable to those that control admission to the legal and medical professions.
London cabbies need to know all of those streets, and how to drive them—the direction they run, which are one-way, which are dead ends, where to enter and exit traffic circles, and so on. But cabbies also need to know everything on the streets. Examiners may ask a would-be cabbie to identify the location of any restaurant in London. Any pub, any shop, any landmark, no matter how small or obscure—all are fair game. Test-takers have been asked to name the whereabouts of flower stands, of laundromats, of commemorative plaques. One taxi driver told me that he was asked the location of a statue, just a foot tall, depicting two mice sharing a piece of cheese. It’s on the facade of a building in Philpot Lane, on the corner of Eastcheap, not far from London Bridge.
Knowledge of the streets shades into something more comprehensive, knowledge of the city and its history, as the city is constantly changing. Traveling to a fish market on the outskirts of town that supplies high-end restaurants, McCabe gathers intelligence on which chefs are currently where. “You have to look into these things. You know, the examiner could turn around and say, ‘Name me two Angela Hartnett restaurants,’ or ‘Name me four Gordon Ramsay restaurants.’”
Thirty-seven months into his studies, McCabe reckons that, once he figures in lost income since devoting himself to the Knowledge full-time (he previously had a business in the building trades), he has invested about $200,000 in becoming a taxi driver. He was once rear-ended on his scooter while surveying a route, and went flying over the roof of the car.
It is largely a skill of visual memory that the “Knowledge boys” develop; in plotting a route in their minds’ eye they will alternate between a street-level view and the aerial views that they absorb by poring over maps for many hours every day. According to Rosen they “speak of a Eureka moment when, after months or years of doggedly assembling the London puzzle, the fuzziness recedes and the city snaps into focus, the great morass of streets suddenly appearing as an intelligible whole. McCabe was startled not just by that macroview, but by the minute details he was able to retain. ‘I can pull a tiny little art studio just from the color of the door, and where it’s got a lamppost outside. Your brain just remembers silly things, you know?’”
How are we to understand this knowledge, and its value? How should we view its likely demise as the GPS-enabled ride sharing firm Uber muscles its way into London, with its standing reserve army of subsistence drivers who have little investment in the job?
Personal knowledge versus the global economy
One response would be to say, good riddance. The taxi drivers are like a medieval guild who have been able to charge high fees because of their knowledge, which is personally held. But that knowledge has been rendered as “information”, available to all without effort, through a machine process. And this is all to the good for consumers. That is, for the people (who only show up as consumers in this train of thought). Where’s the problem? Wouldn’t it be a little too precious to worry about the London taxi drivers, a romantic indulgence? One probably rooted in some rigid mental habit, a fear of change and hankering after the past? Or some merely aesthetic objection to technology, typical of privileged intellectuals? These are the stock phrases of forward-thinking journalists on left and right alike who invoke inevitability to quarantine doubts that may arise about the progressive good will of Big Tech. To be free of nostalgia is the first point of pride for such journalists. This makes them useful to the tech firms in overcoming popular resistance when those firms launch fresh incursions into previously autonomous realms.
In much commentary and reportage, several unrelated developments get mixed up together: driverless cars, electric vehicles, and ride hailing. I believe this fuzziness is deliberately cultivated, as it imparts a sheen of technological progress to the ride-hailing firms when in fact their core business is one of labor arbitrage.[ix] Their “innovation” is merely to exploit the deskilling effect of GPS for this purpose. The main divide across which they practice labor arbitrage is time of residence in a city, which corresponds to the acquisition of knowledge held independently in a person’s head, without reliance on GPS. Continued high levels of immigration guarantee a persistent gradient—of personal knowledge—along which to conduct this labor arbitrage. And in fact, the majority of Uber drivers are recent immigrants. Here is one instance where the “humanitarian” mindset of maximum migrants happens to line up with the interests of a small number of corporations. It is an alliance that gets covered over by the mystifications of “tech”.
I visited London in January 2023 and went to a service at the Church of St. Bartholomew the Great, which was preparing to celebrate the 900th anniversary of its founding. Along one wall there was a display of the royal charter granted to the Worshipful Company of Hackney Carriage Drivers by Queen Elizabeth II in 2013. The Company itself dates from an act of Parliament in 1654. The charter directs the Chamberlain of London to “admit their freemen to the Freedom of the City and enroll their apprentices in accordance with the Custom of London.”
To understand the resentments provoked by Street View in the UK, one has to select a Brexit hat and try it on for size. The slogan of the Leave campaign was “Take Back Control.” That, in a nutshell, expresses the political issue: sovereignty. It is visible in microcosm in the fight between a guild of taxi drivers who spend their lives on the streets of London gaining hard-won knowledge, on the one hand, and a small cadre of data entrepreneurs armed with satellites who live in California, on the other. And by the way, those satellites actually belong to the United States military, which developed GPS for its own purposes. Those initial purposes of military surveillance turned out to be admirably adaptable to this brand of economic colonialism. It might be viewed as a karmic reversal of the state-enabled piracy practiced by Britain’s Hudson’s Bay Company in North America three centuries earlier.
Let us give the angry nationalist intuition a bit further rein, and see where it leads us. The incursion of Street View and GPS opened London up for easier inspection, making it more legible to outsiders. These include the Esperanto meritocrats who come from all corners of the globe to throng the city’s financial center in smartly tailored suits, and representatives of various trans-European administrative bodies who needed to visit the island, like a Roman proconsul, to keep it abreast of pronouncements by the European Parliament. The flood of GPS-guided cars trolling for fares, piloted by ill-paid drivers as lost in London as you or I, has increased congestion but also made London more cheaply available to tourists who come for a few days. What’s not to like, for the cockney East Ender who took four years out of his life to master his own city from the cobbles up, on two wheels, in all manner of weather? To complain about your own economic and political dispossession is to be a Luddite.
Clearly the discontent of a Leave voter cannot be met simply with economic arguments, as the Remain campaign tied to do, as this kind of despair shades into something more existential than economics. In fact, throughout the Western democracies we have seen the advent of what we might call existential politics, and one factor in this is surely that sense one has that there is something new and voracious in the world that feeds on local sovereignty and hard-won, personal knowledge of the material world.
Total legibility from afar
In 2008 Google launched a project called Ground Truth but kept it tightly under wraps, likely due to the controversies surrounding Street View. It was more or less forced to reveal the program after the FCC issued its final report on Google’s surveillance lawlessness in 2012. Ground Truth takes the logic of Street View one step further. It is essentially an effort to capture all locally embedded intelligence of the sort the London taxi drivers call the Knowledge. In natural settings, it aspires to what a wilderness guide in some particular mountain range or swamp might call local ecological awareness.
The senior product manager for Google Maps introduced the Ground Truth project by saying, “If you look at the offline world, the real world in which we live, that information is not entirely online.” This is a defect in reality. It represents darkness and inaccessibility, and these are bad. More cheerfully, it is a gap to be bridged. Because we can. As Shoshana Zuboff reports, “Ground Truth is the ‘deep map’ that contains the detailed ‘logic of places’: walking paths, goldfish ponds, highway on-ramps, traffic conditions, ferry lines, parks, campuses, neighborhoods, [the interiors of] buildings, and more. Getting these details right is a source of competitive advantage….”
Let us consider what it would mean for a single corporation to develop a comprehensive index of the physical world. For what Google seeks is nothing less than this. It has put its cameras on backpacks and snowmobiles to access places not canvassed by its Street View cars, and offered use of the backpack cameras to nonprofits and tourist boards to “collect views of remote and unique places.”[x] There is always a democratic-sounding rationale that can be produced if anyone balks at this, a one-liner before which the kind of people who staff nonprofits are likely to crumble: you wouldn’t want to hoard remote and unique places for “the privileged,” would you?
A world that is fully known by Google, and indexed by Google, will be accessed via Google as well. It will be the reality platform. As Zuboff puts it, “My house, my street, my favorite café: each is redefined as a living tourist brochure, surveillance target, and strip mine, an object for universal inspection and commercial expropriation.” And this: “Google’s ideal society is a population of distant users, not a citizenry. It idealizes people who are informed, but only in the ways the corporation chooses.”
To make every place available to all is not to erase privilege, if by that term we mean something illegitimate. Rather it is to erase an earned ability to know and to use diverse and localized pockets of the world according to different levels of personal investment and responsibility. Another way to name this would be the end of ownership, conceived not simply as private property, but as title to inhabit some place on the earth as one’s own. We do so with others who are also in this place, rather than another place; let us call such collective ownership citizenship. When it persists across generations, a people emerges. A nation. Such existential or experiential ownership is to be sacrificed, not for the sake of a socialist ideal, but for the sake of perfect legibility from afar, mediated by a single corporation.
Sustained habitation of a place becomes the foundation of local solidarity. Jody Rosen relates the moment when Matt McCabe was accepted into the fraternity of London taxi drivers as one of overwhelming emotion. After years of merciless grilling by his examiners, conducted with all the formality of a legal deposition, his final recitation of a route, or “call,” consisted of twenty-seven turns from Camberwell to Holloway before an examiner named O’Connor:
When McCabe finished the call, he and O’Connor sat in silence for what seemed to McCabe an eternity. Finally, O’Connor stood up and extended his hand. He said: “Well done, Matt. Welcome to the club. I’m pleased to say that you’re now one of London’s finest.” It was the first time in the more than three years McCabe had been coming to LTPH that an examiner had called him by his first name. . . . “It was hard to hold back the tears. Three years of complete financial stress, family stress—studying for 13 hours a day, seven days a week. Suddenly, the whole thing was very casual. It was quite, you know, ‘Sit back, relax, loosen your tie.’ And then Mr. O’Connor was telling me what to expect doing the job. He was giving me his inside knowledge after being a London cabbie for, like, 20-odd years.” McCabe went home to his family. He and his wife, Katie, ordered take-out from a Thai restaurant, put on loud music, and danced around the house with their children. When the kids went to bed, the McCabes drank a few beers and dismantled the Knowledge library: stored the flashcards and pages of notes, took the maps off the wall. Katie, McCabe said, “cried for about two days solid.”
What this scene depicts is a livelihood. Or to use a more comprehensive term, it depicts a lifeworld: an economic, social, and existential home, based on a deep cognitive accomplishment earned through sheer dint of intellectual labor and bodily exposure, a world of hours invested and relationships formed, of financial risk undertaken in uncertainty and hope, redeemed through faith and perseverance.
To make the streets of London navigable by machine processes brings real benefits to the many, while destroying the lifeworld of a small minority. There is a real tradeoff here; there is no political algebra that solves for justice. It is a contest of competing interests, with winners and losers. In thinking about the contest of learned cabbies versus Google and Uber, we do well to recognize that it is just one of many that stretch out before us in the coming years, and that each of us belongs to a small minority of some sort. Most of these contests have not yet been recognized by you and me, but you can be sure that as you read this, they are being identified by the Blob that seeks to claim every nook and cranny of human experience as raw material to be datafied and turned to its own profit. What this amounts to is a concentration of wealth, a centralization of knowledge, and an atrophy of our native skills to do things for ourselves.
However one comes down on a contest such as that between the highly professional taxi savants and the indifferent drivers of the gig economy; between consumer convenience and a living wage; between waiting an extra five minutes to hail a cab versus spending an extra ten minutes in traffic because the streets are flooded with empty Ubers, shouldn’t these questions be decided by us, through democratic contest? That is not at all what is happening. It is more like colonial conquest, this new and very unilateral form of political economy.
[i] Alistair Jamieson, “Google Will Carry On with Camera Cars Despite Privacy Complaints over Street Views,” Telegraph, April 9, 2009 (reporting an interview in the Times), https://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/google/5130068/Google-will-carry-on-with-camera-cars-despite-privacy-complaints-over-street-views.html.
[ii] Shoshanna Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, p. 44.
[iii] Zuboff, Age of Surveillance Capitalism, p. 48.
[iv] Zuboff, Age of Surveillance Capitalism, pp. 146–50.
[v] James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), p. 53.
[vi] Scott gives some historical examples of geographic inscrutability (to outsiders) playing this defensive role. The Casbah was the stronghold of resistance to the French in Algiers, and in Iran it was from the political space maintained in the bazaar that a challenge to the rule of the Shah was launched. The townships of South Africa under apartheid provide another example of precincts whose illegibility made them ungovernable. In Paris, it was in the oldest and most confusing quartiers that uprisings were launched in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with barricades going up nine times in the second quarter of the nineteenth century and full-blown revolutions in 1830 and 1848. When Louis Napoleon seized power in 1851 in a coup d’état, he authorized Baron Haussmann, prefect of the Seine, to undertake a radical reconstruction of Paris, requiring widespread demolition, that would permit “a synoptic grasp of the ensemble,” as Scott writes. And this for a number of reasons: to make the city more governable, more healthy, and more imposing in the manner proper to an imperial power. In 1860 the insurrectionary outskirts were annexed to Paris. Haussmann described these districts as a “dense belt of suburbs, given over to twenty different administrations, built at random, covered by an inextricable network of narrow and tortuous public ways, alleys, and dead-ends, where a nomadic population . . . without any effective surveillance, grows at a prodigious speed.”
[vii] “How do you create a map showing every road in the United States, with the precise location of every stop sign, all the lane markings, every exit ramp and every traffic light—and update it in real time as traffic is rerouted around construction and accidents? . . . ‘If we want to have autonomous cars everywhere, we have to have digital maps everywhere,’ said Amnon Shashua, chief technology officer at Mobileye, an Israeli company that makes advanced vision systems for automobiles.” From Neal E. Boudette, “Building a Road Map for the Self-Driving Car,” New York Times, March 2, 2017.
[viii] Jody Rosen, “The Knowledge, London’s Legendary Taxi-Driver Test, Puts Up a Fight in the Age of GPS,” New York Times Style Magazine, November 10, 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/10/t-magazine/london-taxi-test-knowledge.html.
[ix] See Hubert Horan, “Uber’s Path of Destruction,” American Affairs 3, no. 2 (Summer 2019).
[x] Zuboff, Age of Surveillance Capitalism, p. 152.
I'm reading The World Beyond Your head and this piece reminds me of themes in that. I think of how little attention I pay to the environment I'm navigating, using Google, and wonder how that disembodied cognition alters me.
It's strange how removed we become from the actual world, by dint of technologies that put more of it at our disposal.
The Machine Stops
By E. M. Forster 1909
“Cannot you see, cannot all you lecturers see, that it is we that are dying, and that down here the only thing that really lives is the Machine? We created the Machine, to do our will, but we cannot make it do our will now. It has robbed us of the sense of space and of the sense of touch, it has blurred every human relation and narrowed down love to a carnal act, it has paralysed our bodies and our wills, and now it compels us to worship it. The Machine develops — but not on our lines. The Machine proceeds — but not to our goal. We only exist as the blood corpuscles that course through its arteries, and if it could work without us, it would let us die.”