Mapping Capital

Urban disinvestment on the small screen

by Ella Comberg

published December 6, 2019


Vince Staples’ music video “FUN!” opens on a digital rendering of the planet Earth. The camera zooms in rapidly—as many of us do on our own computers—to see an urban neighborhood from above. In this case, it’s Long Beach, California’s Ramona Park neighborhood, labeled on this map as “Norfy.” The user of whatever computer we’re inside pulls a little yellow man from the map’s sidebar and onto the streets. Suddenly, we are on Google’s Earth, inching along Google’s streets.

Set to the pounding digital beat of Staples’ song, the music video closely replicates Google Street View, the imaging project that the search (and data) giant has undertaken since 2007 to photograph every street in the world. Those images, once stitched by Google into a three-dimensional, virtually walkable, and seemingly infinite map, are so immersive that they feels like life as we live it. Except in this version of the technology, the streets of Ramona Park aren’t quite Google’s, nor are they the streets we know in the real world. In this iteration of digital mapping, people—young Black men, women, and children—have digitally visual lives that are visibly both dynamic and devastating, overpoliced and FUN. They have unblurred faces and moving, living bodies, not the frozen, blurred ones they would on Google Street View. Over the course of the music video, they light a vigil for a shooting, get in a street fight that an onlooker records on her phone, play double dutch, and steal a white neighbor’s bicycle. They also steal her phone, which she’s using to call the police, who then arrive and arrest Staples and his peers. They do it all in the space of an alternative Google Street View until, at the very end of the video, the user who’s been navigating the scene is revealed: He’s a tweenage white boy sitting in his room on his laptop. The video ends when his mother calls him to dinner. As if afraid someone will think his virtual wanderings improper, he quickly shuts his laptop, and the video cuts to black.




Almost every day, I find myself in digital Baltimore, gliding down streets lined with three-story brick row homes, many of them painted in light pastels. Sometimes, I’ll see a piece of graffiti on one of these facades that reads “No shoot zone,” a marker of the unsanctioned organizing and self-preservation practices undertaken by Black activists in the city. Other times, I’ll land in Watts or on the South Side of Chicago, coming upon scenes of sun-drenched sprawl in the former and verdant density in the latter.

I am most touched by the scenes, which I find in northern cities, of children walking home from school, clutching their coats closed in the freezing cold, backpacks unzipped, straps falling down unceremoniously. These are moments of narrative that peek through a technology that otherwise tries to suppress markers of humanity in an effort to de-identify. For me, Google Street View becomes a point of contact with the poor urban communities that I snaked in and out of, grew up in close proximity to but never fully inside; spaces I knew intimately but that were never quite my own. It is the most practical tool for accessing the hyper-specific places that I’m now geographically and socially removed from. It is also, as the “FUN!” video shows, a totally perverse, obviously reductive, and exceedingly common way to do so.

My favorite scene ever emerged when I was Google-walking around West Philadelphia, where I grew up. A house stands alone in an otherwise vacant lot. If you use the tool that allows you to go back in time to earlier Street Views of this place, an image emerges of two boys, a girl, and their father on the stoop, barefoot in the summer of 2007. When you pull the map forward to 2018, the girl has aged to look like she’s in her late teens, sitting on the stoop once again, this time with a terrier. But I don’t know the whole story; in fact, I know almost none of it. I can’t see inside the house, and even if I could, that wouldn’t be enough to compile a life narrative. The moments I come upon on Google Street View are really only the tip of the iceberg. They indicate what’s hiding behind the visual map, in the lived world that the technology tries, unsuccessfully, to convey in full. But this might not even be the same girl. I can’t tell because her face is blurred.




Google Street View, of course, does not aim to tell life narratives. It aims to show the whole world. But as my digital wanderings and “FUN!” reveal, even with infinite visual data, certain images present far more compelling narratives and aesthetics than others. In the examples I’ve given, those have been scenes of American urban poverty. These are not isolated examples. In recent years, a number of “Street View photographers,” most famously Doug Rickard and Jon Rafman, whose work fixates on derelict and disturbing scenes respectively, have risen to fame on the internet and prominence in the art world. Most praise for these artists has centered on their ability to use a seemingly banal tool to produce photography that feels like photography, not a screenshot. Little attention, however, has been given to the content or geography of these photographs, which all gravitate toward poverty—in things and in people—as it manifests in the street.

The neighborhoods Rickard, Rafman, and I look at on Google Street View are uniquely compelling for a number of reasons. The clearest is a kind of voyeurism, made possible by Google’s massive visual data cache, that allows wealthy people with no interest in actually going to poor neighborhoods to feel like they are experiencing them, perhaps sympathetically, by way of digital watching. (The last few seconds of “FUN!” gesture to the problem of white spectatorship.) There’s also the undeniable fact that poor Americans are forced into the public realm in ways the wealthy almost never are. “The camera only captures who’s on the street during daylight hours,” says Rafman, “while most, let’s say, white-collar workers are in their offices somewhere. People like prostitutes, people living on the street, they have much more of a chance to be captured by the camera.” Rickard likewise shows bus stops, public parks, back alleys, and stoops—places where poor Americans can’t hide from Google’s eye, inhabited by people whose houses aren’t wrapped with fences that even Google’s eight-foot-tall cameras can’t see over.

But these critiques only really scratch the surface of the argument one could make about Google’s imaging project as it relates to the decimation of the country’s poorest urban neighborhoods. I have, it seems, fallen into the trap of user experience. As tech reporter Alexis Madrigal writes in the Atlantic, “They've built this whole playground as an elaborate lure for you.” Madrigal refers to Google Maps’ practice of gathering massive amounts of user location data, but the statement holds true in the context of how we talk about the images the corporation produce as well. The black box, which prevents us from seeing most of what famously evasive tech companies do with the data they gather, also means that options for critique itself are limited to what we can see on the screen. The viewing public is forced into formalism: How does the camera convey condescension? What are the politics of viewing people of a different class or race positioning than you on the screen? Questions like these, which populate the history of photography, are renewed with the new tool Google has hoisted upon the public, but they don’t respond in any particular way to this technology itself. What we should be asking, really, is how the camera (or, the corporation that owns and navigates it) produced the very thing it photographs.

To think beyond a criticism of individual use—of voyeurism—we must look back to the late seventies. During that era, computers began to shift from their military origins and into civilian life; researchers at Stanford, MIT, and Harvard, namely, began to collaborate with defense contractors and city governments in service of a hyper-logical—that is, computerized and anti-human—vision for the built environment; and the Aspen Movie Map, a dinky proto-Google Street View, was born. This moment, when the relationships between the corporation, the military, the research university, and the planning departments of American cities were laid bare proves incredibly useful in understanding the black-boxed urban imaging technologies of today, whose true intention often remains purposefully obscured.




Like many functionally inoffensive technologies, including the internet itself, Google Street View has its roots in the military. Researchers at MIT’s Architecture Machine Group (now the MIT Media Lab) acquired a contract from the Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency in 1977. As media historian Aubrey Anable writes, they were asked “to develop a computer-based surrogate travel system that the military could use to train personnel for urban combat.” By virtually experiencing a place before attacking it, military officials hoped soldiers would have a more informed understanding of the spaces where they would eventually fight. With this as their program, the MIT team began tinkering. Eventually, they produced a station wagon with four 16mm film cameras strapped to the roof programmed to take photos every ten feet. They tested it on the streets of Aspen, Colorado. The virtual environment that the team developed from these images asked users to sit in an Eames chair in a dark room, where they  used a joystick to navigate Aspen’s newly virtual streets.

The so-called Aspen Movie Map has clear mechanical similarities to Google’s roving cars, which would be introduced some thirty years later. Alongside these technical similarities, Aspen also delineated the relationship between military technology and urban development, mediated through the digital map. The wealthy, small, and well-kempt ski resort town of Aspen offered an easily manageable and mappable test site for students and researchers to try out their new technology. Unlike the cities still recovering from the race riots of the late sixties—places largely understood by intellectuals at universities like MIT in the language of crisis and, oftentimes, war—Aspen was appealingly uncomplicated (that is, white and wealthy). In its exclusion, the city remained free of the poverty and resultant instability that so defined the elite imagination of American cities in this period. It was, in many ways, what the MIT researchers thought the city of the future could be.

How could city planners replicate the placid model Aspen represented in more traditional American cities? The answer came in the form of military technologies like the Movie Map. As historian Jennifer Light writes in her book From Warfare to Welfare, after the failure of urban renewal in the late sixties to ameliorate urban problems from traffic to poverty and crime, city governments looked to the RAND Corporation, Lockheed Martin, and other military contractors to provide algorithmic solutions to the problems of mostly Black city-dwellers. Coincidentally, after the Vietnam War, many of these companies needed to adapt their technology to a commercial terrain. The City of Pittsburgh’s planning department, for example, hired Calvin Hamilton, an early military planning researcher at Harvard. When Hamilton brought with him tools for digital mapping from Harvard, Pittsburgh began to create computer simulations of urban space.

Unlike Google, planners and consultants in Pittsburgh admitted that planning based on an unreal and too-simple map impacted their decision-making. Hamilton was clear that “in no case are these models photographic reproductions of reality. If they were, they would be so complicated that they would be of little, if any, use.” As Light writes, “every complex urban problem had to be defined in more narrow terms so it could be modeled.” Indeed, much of the goal-setting conducted by planning departments in collaboration with defense consultants in this period, such as reducing urban blight and improving residents’ quality of life, could not be quantified and therefore could not be solved with these tools meant for more precise military problems. When narratives became numbers so that planners could input them into their new computers, the solutions appeared successful on the computer, but devastated real urban life. If you just looked at the computer, though, you wouldn’t know it.

In Rickard and Rafman’s work, in “FUN!,” and in thousands of people’s own virtual wanderings, we see the lineage of the Aspen Movie Map, both as an actor of disinvestment and as an emergent technology. But that seemingly uninterested eye obscures the reality that MIT, Lockheed, the Defense Department, and the like were in fact deeply interested in the decimation of urban life in the second half of the twentieth century, just as their analogue in Google (and the federal government, and Stanford, etc.) continue to be interested in the redevelopment of those same areas. We don’t have to look very far to see this relationship. In fact, it’s right on our screen. Of course, it’s not that we can  see the ‘defense intellectuals’ of the sixties or Google today actually doing anything in the Aspen Movie Map or on Google Street View, respectively; all we see are their effects, which become palpably illuminated when viewed through the tool that played a role in their production. This is the power of the image—specifically, the dialectical image, as Walter Benjamin termed it: “It’s not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on the past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation.”




WeWork, the world's largest coworking space company, released its IPO statement in August, defining itself as a tech company to much pushback. Many critics were quick to point out that WeWork is, clearly, a real estate company, albeit a stylish and massive one. We might think of Google as WeWork’s inverse: Although it is categorically a tech company, the conglomerate has branched out into real estate in recent years. I’m not referring to the concrete and devastating ripple effects Google has had on the Bay Area’s real estate market. The company is now literally a landlord: Sidewalk Labs, a project nestled under Alphabet, Google’s parent company, is, at this moment, building a neighborhood from the ground up in a Toronto neighborhood they’ve dubbed “Quayside.” When completed, the neighborhood will serve as a model for what the ‘Smart City’ can be. By installing sensors to gather information about, say, pedestrian movement, wastewater flow, and traffic patterns, the Smart City can supposedly develop in response to these data. We can hear echoes of the failure of algorithmic planning from the sixties, loud and clear.

Despite the reality that the algorithm—in the hands of Sidewalk Labs—will determine what happens in Toronto, the company continues to use the tools of civic engagement to make the public feel like their input will affect design decisions. Media historian Shannon Mattern has called this process “mapwashing.” Sidewalk Labs takes up the grassroots tools of civic planning (Post-Its, maps you can draw on, whiteboards) to perform what Toronto-based activist Bianca Wiley terms “engagement theatre”: A show will be made of gathering public opinion and nothing will be done with it.

The Aspen Movie Map and, later, Google Street View follow a similar formula. As an emergent neoliberal individualism began to overtake city governments in the seventies and eighties, those ideologies translated quite directly into the built environment as corporate real estate interests took the place of city planners and citizens. As Anable has argued, the rhetoric of individualism—today, innovation—is clear in the digital mapping infrastructures of the late seventies, literally made tangible as a man with a joystick navigates his built environment. In the Aspen Movie Map, individualistic navigation made users feel as if they had autonomy to construct the whole world just as civic engagement does today. Anable puts the problem of walking digital streets this way: “Human-focused interfaces meant to bridge the problems of scale between the individual and the city ended up creating ways for individuals to explore vast spaces, ‘Datalands,’ without ever leaving their homes. Which, in the age of urban crisis, was an exceedingly fearful and conservative response to the 'monumentalism' of the modern city.”

It is hard to overstate how stark a deviation the Movie Map, and personal computing more broadly, marked from the mainframes that had confined computing to institutional settings (like university basements) until the seventies. An updated interface, however, did not change the fundamental fact that the computer and the city were both hardwired by research and defense intellectuals, and that those intellectuals were interested in employing tools of war planning on the streets of poor neighborhoods. Urban fate, even if physically navigable on the computer, remained largely overdetermined.

Sidewalk Labs’ work is not limited to Toronto. The idea of the Smart City has pervaded urbanist ideas about what modern planning should look like worldwide, with Sidewalk Labs’ Toronto experiment only serving as the most tangible model for the ways algorithmic planning can trickle down to other American cities. In early 2019, for example, Sidewalk Labs began packaging and selling information, like commute routes gathered from the location trackers embedded in individuals’ Google Maps app, to city planning departments. When we look at a poor neighborhood through Google Street View, we’re seeing the devastation wrought by urban planning efforts of the late-twentieth century; we’re also visualizing sites for redevelopment through new algorithmic models, like commute data. What we are certainly not seeing, however, is poverty as it’s lived.

If Google’s algorithms determine not only the way we live our digital lives, but even the brick and mortar of urban life, then there’s no space outside of programmed existence. I think of my long commute in high school, those Kawasaki trolleys introduced in the seventies, which never came on time and always left me freezing in the street in the early hours of the morning. In the evening, they’d be packed to the gills with the city’s working class and school children. Whenever I’m on one of those trolleys, jerking through underground tunnels, I curse the fuss over the MTA. This is what it actually feels like to suffer, I think, it’s so bad that no one even knows to complain. But of course, that suffering wasn’t the product of public officials or corporate charity forgetting to help, as it often felt it was; it was the product of bad, militaristic planning. I felt, not coincidentally, like I was in the trenches, sliding down icy hills and into my hyper-policed high school, where we waited in line each morning to go through metal detectors to prevent us from getting shot or stabbed inside as people did outside. This was no mistake; when I look at my high school through Google Street View, I reproduce a congruence between the medium and its message, between digital, militaristic planning and hyper-individualistic viewing and navigating. Perhaps this is why it feels so right, why I do it nearly every day.

If there’s no way out of digital life, there are only ways through it. I always come back to the “FUN!” video as an answer to this somewhat devastating conundrum. Yes, the video offers a critique of the reductive nature of Google Street View as a mechanism for vicarious experience of urban poverty for those outside of it. But it also, before we realize who’s watching, offers a reimagination of the way digital life can function. As Ruha Benjamin, a scholar working at the intersection of race and technology, has explained, there is a degree of “facticity” to the surveillance of Black life, “from slave patrol to stop and frisk to internet.” That Staples and his neighbors will live on a screen within a screen in the music video is almost self-evident given this history. But at the same time as surveillance is problematic, as Shoshana Zuboff has written of Google in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, “If you are not on our map, you do not exist.” What do we do, then, with the map we have?

This is perhaps one of those occasions when art is the most appropriate response to a political phenomenon. We do not have access to the code that underlies Google Street View, the data it gathers from users, or Google’s corporate masterplan. What we do have is an infinite and powerful cache of images that mandates visual critique—that mandates art. But not all art that takes Google Street View as its medium answers this problem with the same force. Rafman, Rickard, and many other white artists re-photograph poor people of color in digital streets as a means to despair. Staples’ film, on the other hand, produces a more productive critique. “FUN!” recognizes the failure of the justice system and the devastation of gun violence, for example, while also offering an alternative to total subsumption into the digital system. Staples posits a kind of lived autonomy, but it’s not the same farce of freedom produced by the corporate map. On this new kind of map, only slightly different from the one we know, a new kind of life emerges.




ELLA COMBERG B’20 only navigates Google Street View from an Eames chair.