Below is a response to Myaukh Sen’s Dividing Lines. My intention was the synthesize the readings into a more “inclusive” piece that touched on each but time did what time does and suddenly its approaching midnight on Tuesday. Anyways, I’m not necessarily married to anything stated in this post so I look forward to hearing your thoughts, disagreements, etc. (Also, I’m writing this under the assumption that our required responses to weekly readings listed on the course syllabus can be done at any point during the semester and can be approached however we like?)
In July of this year, Google Maps announced the launch of Street View in India after an eleven-year regulatory struggle, partnering with local mapping solutions company, Genesys International, and multinational information technology services company, Tech Mahindra, to potentially mend the problems associated with the barely intelligible images of Indian villages lamented by Mayukh Sen (Garg, 2022). Throughout their piece Dividing Lines, Sen rightfully critiques the “hierarchies of dominance of the West” that reproduce such cartographic invisibilities and erasures, labeling Google a “de facto neocolonial force” that reifies and recreates “inequities created by colonial-era decisions, ultimately calling for a “humane approach to mapping” that doesn’t work to revitalize uneven developments in the globalized economy through increasingly ubiquitous digital systems (Sen, 2017). For the most part, Sen’s point, despite it being predicated almost entirely without mentioning India’s resistance to participating in such mapping projects (Sen waits until the second-to-last paragraph to mention this as an element of the issue), is a necessary one that deserves further recognition and understanding by those of us existing primarily in a framework built from Western cartographic perspectives and traditions. However, I feel that components of Sen’s conclusion miss the point entirely.
While advocating for a precise approach to mapping that doesn’t allow “glib sentimentality” to influence the crucial necessity of attention to “political divisions and geographical inequalities,” Sen seems to intermittently fall into such sentimentality throughout this piece, anticipating “the promise” of Google Earth offering some medicinal program for homesickness or displacement as something the company (or, a similar program) might eventually learn to strive for, that the “essentialist white, Western perspective” is, at this point in the development of unfettered digital capitalism, driven by anything but a perspective of profit (Sen, 2017). Google’s profit-driven desire to exist in and extract data from the physical spaces of countries such as India has long existed, prohibited only due to a terror attack in Mumbai that Google Earth was subsequently deemed liable for, rather than some underlying logic in the company’s structure that values the nostalgia incited through the crystal clear image of a New Jersey home more than that of villages in Balrampur. The drive of corporate interests to globally colonize public space, best exemplified by Google’s cartographic projects, certainly meets the criteria of Sen’s labeling of them as “de facto neocolonial forces,” but seemingly not for the reason that he intends. Sen seems focused on Google’s approach to an economy of exploitation and dispossession, grounding his understanding of this approach in the outmoded model of colonialism and critiquing this “neocolonialism” for its disregard for the homes and identities of those not represented through its ostensibly “global” reach, rather than advancing contestations against the very existence and expanding scope of such programs.
As I noted above, the recent acceptance of Google Street View’s project and its intention to map 50 Indian cities by 2022 might provide some sense of recognition as the landmarks of hometowns become discernible and the Western haze is lifted from the street signs that might lead one to interactive images of one’s childhood homes. There is undeniable value in such an experience and this critique of Sen’s work is not meant to discredit this. However, to quote Shoshana Zuboff’s remarks on the work of historian of cartography John B. Harley, “‘Maps created empire.’ They are essential for the effective ‘pacification, civilization, and exploitation’ of territories imagined or claimed but not yet seized in practice. Places must be known in order to be controlled” (2019, p. 154). Though Sen hints at an understanding of this throughout his piece, even going so far as to say that “concerns about surveillance and data harvesting” shouldn’t be invalidated while doing nothing to validate them, I feel as if Sen’s emphasis on digital colonialism’s exclusion of the Global South negates the severity of the grip with which Google’s novel empire is indexing the physical world in a growing number of nations and societies that are growing wholly dependent on the consumer technologies such companies provide, ultimately leading to an erosion of possibilities of existence outside of the market everywhere. Zuboff goes on to note that it is Google’s prerogative to “empty every place of the subjective meanings that unite the human beings who gather there,” mirroring Adam Greenfield’s warnings in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life that the tailoring of environmental depictions via the smartphone to each individual user creates a different atomized map that “subtly erodes an experience of the world in common” (Zuboff, 2019, p. 141; Greenfield, 2017, p. 24). Despite Sen’s hesitant hope that Google can someday amount to “its promise of offering something like home,” the company, by design, will never provide anything outside of its “commercially oriented representation of the world,” to borrow the phrasing of Anne Marie Gardenier, and to expect, ask for, or demand humanity, recognition, or dignity from a structure rooted purely in exploitation demonstrates an unfortunate lack of consideration for that which we are truly up against (Gardenier, 2020, p. 3).
To India’s credit, their 11-year resistance to Google Maps’ invasive engagement with their public spaces is noteworthy and their recent entrance, only permissible due to its collaboration with two Indian corporations, seemingly counters the passive consumption of strictly Western corporate content that Olivia Colon once described as a foundational component to digital colonialism (2017). Lastly, I recognize that such a critique of Sen’s argument from the exact Western perspective this piece is advocating an escape from might come across as banal or as devaluing his work and well-warranted motivations in creating it. My intention was merely to highlight a component of Google’s universal project of exploitation as the next unprecedented phase of the cycle of dispossession (i.e., digital dispossession and the proletarianization of the mind), rather than purely an exacerbation of inequities and injustices of the previous era (though this is obviously an element of such a process). Cartography is, and always has been, an instrument of power, and when a map of the world exists in the pocket of the multitude as a catered augmentation attuned to the desires and drives of one’s behavioral surplus, providing harvested data to an algorithm that responsively works to automatically feed these desires and drives with curated stimuli and sedatives, our sovereignty is overthrown and we are left with few tools existing outside of the market to redefine what it is to be autonomous, self-determining, and unconstrained by the technologies that increasingly normalize themselves not as mere augmentations but as a prerequisite to properly exist and be recognized in the world.
Essentially, Bonilla and Hantel’s advocacy for a revisualization of sovereignty seems to bear a great deal more emancipatory and revolutionary potential than working towards spatial recognition from a program of global corporate colonization with an infinite appetite for the exploitation of the same human experience that allows us to cherish and recognize our selves in the hum of a song, in the Proustian smell of a dessert on a stove in the next room, and in the now-foggy objects that furnished our childhood struggling for shape in our memories. How’s that for glib sentimentality?
Colon, O. (2017, July 27). ‘it’s Digital Colonialism’: How Facebook’s Free Internet Service has failed its users. The Guardian. Retrieved September 20, 2022, from https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/jul/27/facebook-free-basics-developing-markets?utm_source=ifttt
Gardenier, A. M. (2020). Analyzing Google Maps from a critical cartography perspective: (dissertation). Online Culture / Department of Culture Studies / School of Humanities and Digital Sciences, Tilburg.
Garg, A. (2022, July 27). Google maps in India finally gets Street View, coming to these cities first. India Today. Retrieved September 20, 2022, from https://www.indiatoday.in/technology/news/story/google-maps-in-india-finally-gets-street-view-available-in-10-cities-1980506-2022-07-27
Greenfield, A. (2017). Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life. Verso.
Sen, M. (2017, March 27). Dividing Lines. Real Life. Retrieved September 20, 2022, from https://reallifemag.com/dividing-lines/
Zuboff, S. (2019). The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. Public Affairs.