If code is law, then platform is politics, or: the map temporarily becomes the territory

Paul Raven @ 20-06-2011

Pretty simple story, really, and one that says as much about the stupidity of military thinking and the arbitrariness of the concept of national borders in a networked and mediated world than it does about the flaws of technology, but anyway: Nicaraguan military brass invades Costa Rican town and demands lowering of Costa Rican flag because Google Maps inaccurately showed said town as being part of Nicaraguan territory.

It’s a chuckle-worthy little tale on the surface, though there are undercurrents of subterfuge if you’re keen to look for such things – the official maps of both countries display the border correctly, for instance, so why was this guy basing border dispute actions on Google’s offering? A convenient excuse for a political feint, perhaps, or an opportunity to score some sort of bragging points at the officer’s bar? Or just good old fashioned SNAFU?

But the real issue here is that borders are consensual concepts; and when there’s a proliferation of places those concepts can be documented (and a widening of the number of people who might contribute to such), the consensus becomes fuzzier, until it dissolves to a point where it stops mattering to anyone who doesn’t have a serious vested interest in its precision. The people of that town probably identify as Nicaraguan because that’s what they’ve always been told they are, but ultimately the phrase “this town is Nicaraguan” doesn’t have much bearing on the people who live there beyond who they pay their taxes to and which soldiers walk down the high street; the amount of eggs laid by that town’s chickens this morning won’t change if that line on the map moves 3 klicks either way.

The Nicaraguan-ness of the town is of much greater concern to those whose business it is to define and protect (or possibly expand) the concept of Nicaragua. And there, in a microcosmic nutshell, is the main reason that those heavily invested in the concept of the nation-state – be it ideologically, economically or otherwise – are those who are most vocal about the perceived threat of open platforms where contribution to the consensus is not controlled by a strict hierarchy. They lament the loss of a canonical reality, because it is in that canonical reality that their power and privilege is enshrined.

I’m finding that issues of control and hierarchy have become a strong strange attractor for me over the last year, and there’s been an almost vertiginous sense of accretion in the last month or so, thanks in no small point to recent discussions of The Google Threat and similar matters. It interests we that me now talk about the companies we choose to use – and the degree of choice and influence we have over them – in the same language that we talk about politics… to the extent that I’m starting to think that these choices are the politics of a networked world. That explains both the growing disaffection with the “old” politics, and the gravitation toward networks as the place where sociological and geographical identity is enshrined and enacted.

These thoughts are as yet unrefined, but the pattern is becoming clearer, and so I’m staking out my pitch now; who knows, this could be the title of the non-fiction opus that makes me a weblebrity pundit, right? (OK, probably not, but hey, hedging my bets here.)

So: we know Lawrence Lessig’s assertion that “Code is Law”.

Well, here’s Raven’s Corollary: if Code is Law, then Platform is Politics.

You heard it here first. 😉


The map is not the territory, redux – Argleton, the village that doesn’t exist

Paul Raven @ 04-11-2009

As useful as it is to have easy access to digital maps of the world, they throw up some odd anomalies from time to time… like this one from Lancashire, here in the UK. Google’s maps of the area show a small village called Argleton, not far from Ormskirk. The thing is, there’s no such village.

The jury is still out on the cause of this cartographic aberration: the copyfight lobby suspects it’s a deliberate mistake planted in the mapping data by an organisation  keen to catch out those who reuse it without permission (much in the way that the Royal Mail salts its postcode databases with fake addresses so it can detect unlicensed use), but Occam’s Razor suggests it’s more likely a mistyped version of the nearby village of Aughton, or some other sort of data glitch that sneaked its way into the data. These things happen, after all, especially when you pay low hourly rates to large numbers of data entry monkeys… I know, I’ve been one.

But think for a moment – as digital maps become the norm (and given the price the Ordnance Survey charge for theirs, it’s not going to take very long for that to happen on this side of the pond), will they become considered to be authoritative, even though their accuracy may not merit that authority? After all, people trust their sat-navs to such a ridiculous degree that they’ll drive down roads that pure common sense would suggest aren’t safe or worth travelling… it’s like an extension of the unfounded trust that some folk have of everything they see on television. If Google says it’s there, then there it is, right?

Adventuring a little further into the realms of participatory geography, the ability to overlay your own data on top of a basic map could allow groups and collectives to remap and rename places as they chose. Don’t like the political or historical resonances of your local street names? Then choose new ones. Want to differentiate the parts of town that you haunt from the rest of the metropolis? Draw your borders, share your maps, reclaim your city. Once augmented reality becomes ubiquitous (which surely isn’t going to take very long), it’s pretty much game over for conventional consensus geography… and the political repercussions of that are going to be interesting to watch.


Cold war getting hotter scenario from 1987

Tom James @ 19-06-2009

DD-ST-87-08751Alternate-history fans will appreciate these US Department of Defense maps of a projected Soviet invasion of Western Europe, heralding as they would have done the beginning of WWIII:

This map is a really a picture in macro-scale of the epic tank battle for the plains of Germany, that entire generations of Western and Soviet officers built careers around planning and preparing for. In the history of human civilization, the Soviet Western TVD invasion was probably the most researched, contemplated, and gamed out battle that was never actually to take place. Fifty years of voluminous strategic studies were compiled by both sides on this very subject, as both sides searched for advantages in a truly enormous field chess game.

I don’t know enough about the history to say if this is paranoiac or just horrific.

[via the Exile][image and article from TechConex]


Stuff you can’t see on Google Maps

Paul Raven @ 08-01-2009

As the title says: 51 things you can’t see on Google Maps, via Bruce Schneier. No prizes for guessing that most of them are military installations or government-sponsored institutions.

In a decade’s time, will there be more things on this list, or less? Will the list vary according to which nation-state you make your search from? Will there be a ‘black’ maps service that unfuzzes the obscured areas, if you know how to find it (and if there isn’t already)?


Hyperlinking reality

Tom James @ 04-01-2009

where_isResearchers at MOBVIS project are working on a pattern-recognition system that allows you to take a picture of a building on your mobile and have the software identify where you are and what you’re looking at:

…the genius of the system boils down to a higher-dimension, feature-matching algorithm developed by the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia, one of the partners of the project. It can very accurately detect minute but telling differences between similar objects, such as buildings or monuments, both by the appearance of the buildings themselves and their context in the streetscape.

Apparently the system gets it right about 80% of the time.

[from Physorg][from Unhindered by Talent on flickr]


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