Back from the AAG

After a much needed trip to the land of sunshine, I’m back in soggy Seattle. Our panels of Geophilosophy and the Planes of Urban Experience went really well- and we are really excited by the quality of the presentations. My paper, Plane of Immanence of a Fascist Regime: Google and its Mapping Empire, is located here. It’s currently without citations, but there is plenty of time for that as I work it into the dissertation. And besides, isn’t that what evernote is for?

Fascist Regime

As I was writing a paper last summer that looked at artist practices, it took a dark turn at the end. I began thinking about the enormous ‘latitude’ it seems like we have with Google’s tools, nearly all ‘free’ to use; but their service also dependent upon users to contribute to their larger project, ‘free activity’, as Holland would say.  As we grow more dependent upon their tools (they are so smart! accurate!), we contribute to the structure that makes us dependent. Microfascism. Fascism, for D & G, is first evident in the molecular realm, where divisive, controlling behaviors play out on a variety of scales. It is when these microfascisms begin to really cohere into a larger formation that a fascist regime becomes possible.

Around the same time, my co-conspirator and I were contemplating organizing a panel on geophilosophy for the AAG- and we were looking for a conceptual framework that was broad enough to include both of our projects, while not so broad that it would lack any coherence. I was perusing A Thousand Plateaus to generate some ideas and thinking about planes and how they operate. We finally decided on ‘Planes of Urban Experience’ as a way to organize papers, which would allow different scales but also link them together. While Keith’s topic is a physical plane of organization, mine was virtual (not virtual in the Deleuzian sense), immaterial to some degree, but real just the same.

At the time I was thinking that Google best represented a fascist regime. I found plenty of textual support in ATP as I was browsing it, and it set me off on a path of thinking about Google’s dependence on users to help build a portion of their knowledge- either through countless hours of beta testing, the citizen cartographers that ‘unite’ to map the world, the need for them to maintain their status as the #1 search engine to continue to produce accurate results; this is solidified by enthusiastic users taking advantage of all of Google’s tools and applications that augment the internet experience- and increasingly wholly integrated across applications. One never needs to leave the Googleverse.

I’m currently working on that paper, while also working on a portion of my dissertation. Recently I ran across an outline of their company history, as told by them, and decided that I should build a spreadsheet that takes their milestones and makes that information more ‘accessible’ (compared to the 41 page pdf that resulted from printing their webpage) and ‘useful’, to use their jargon…. I’m about 3/4 through the timeline. What has become incredibly clear is how accurate that initial thought that I had last summer really was. To date, they are laying their own internet infrastructure in select places, powering free wi-fi, their mapping regime covers nearly every element of navigation, modal, temporal and spatial; they continue to invest in clean energy- large scale production as well as domestic systems, they are experimenting with countless environmental ‘stewardship’ models, they have the largest electric car charging infrastructure. That’s just the surface. They have become an important public service during natural disasters, providing communication and satellite imagery. They continue to acquire countless businesses to build models that continue to garner an enormous market share in which businesses rely on Google to make them visible; their positive ‘economic impact’ impact in the US economy was $64 billion in 2010, while also ‘matching’ up to $100 million to ‘jump-start’ the economy. They provide phone service via their email software, youtube is increasingly providing ‘live’ news features, they are willing to fund research that can provide news content in today’s ‘lean’ model. I’m not sure if there is any sector in the economy that they haven’t taken on to provide an alternative model.

Meanwhile, the State (used broadly) continues to take a backseat to much of their efforts. Many governments are too slow and unwieldy to perform and innovate like Google. Recently, some of their more controversial efforts have resulted in policy documents of ‘best practices’ that circumvent not only the court system, but also public participation. The current environment of legislative efforts is ineffective, not only at the State (US) level, but also globally- as each government has its own fractured guidelines. This prevents a clear mandate from taking shape- one that benefits all involved, rather than capitalist interests. Meanwhile, it seems clear that many governments tiptoe around Google’s practices, given that Google has increasingly absorbed the burden of providing many services, and most of them free of charge; a classic neoliberal argument if there ever was one. But it also feels fascistic, to recall the repeated rejoinder “why do we desire our own repression?” Continual concessions are made in favor of allowing Google to continue to ‘innovate’, so that it might make things ‘a little bit better’….  Instead of world peace through capitalistic ventures of the neoliberal order, Google is trumpeting data peace and the democratizing of information… of which they exert enormous control over the ways and means to search the information. How democratic is that? They want to refine my search results so that it continues to reinforce my existing habits. They even want me to personalize so that it can anticipate what I want. I don’t want that. I’m a fickle consumer! But boy, the accurate results and integrated tools are seductive…

While it would be easy to a default to a hyperbolic, deterministic argument here, it also feels almost accurate and fair to simply state that it appears that Google is perfectly poised to take over the world.

Citizen Cartographers

I’ve been doing a little research on user practices of Google Street View, and through an oblique angle, I keep finding myself returning to Google’s call for ‘Citizen Cartographers Unite!’ to contribute to their mapping project. It’s not directly tied to Google Street View, so I feel like I need to be careful with how far I wade into this, but it seems to lend itself nicely to my overall inquiry of locating agency with what increasingly points toward the fascist regime of Google.

I’m thinking about fascism in relation to ATP, and the lines of flight that the fascist regime encourages, only to re-axiomatize them into the larger existing plane of organization. This feels pretty appropriate for Google: they encourage innovative and inventive practices and strategies, often partner with projects that serve to highlight their projects: I’m thinking of the Arcade Fire video “Wilderness Downtown”, but also thinking about a couple studies they helped fund that seek to establish the feasibility or efficacy of using Street View to augment research, or their complicity in projects like “Street With a View”. In sum, Google is very interested in all the creative minds that take their efficient regime and problematize, utilize, augment, alter, etc., the visual archive. I think in part, this is very much a part of their roots of a renegade bent, their early mantra of ‘don’t be evil’, and the social good that is coming out of some of their efforts. I’m under no illusion that it’s pure good. Nor do I think they are purely evil and out to control the world. But. I think there is something to be said for the democratization of the mapping process and what happens when you enable citizens to alter the map.

Of course, there are enormous issues that come out of that sentence, some of which are a direct tie to my topic, some are only tangential; regardless, I think it’s impossible to read their efforts in only a negative light. I guess in the coming weeks I’ll fully flesh this out, just in time for the AAG! My co-conspirator and I have organized two panels for the AAG: Geophilosophy and the Planes of Urban Experience. Stay tuned.