Simple Properties

by Alec Mapes-Frances

published October 28, 2016

A favorite bookstore has been marked “Permanently closed.” The taco place on the corner has a new photo. The geo-locational marker for the liquor store appears on the wrong side of the street. An exceptional Indian restaurant has suddenly acquired a low rating. Places are posted, updated, revised, shared, rated, reviewed, moved, bookmarked, deleted. 

Increasingly, today’s urban and suburban environments are experienced through layers of algorithmic and crowd-sourced textualization, mediated by the tastemaking software installed on our networked devices. Integrated mapping and review platforms—Yelp, Google Maps, TripAdvisor, Apple Maps, Foursquare, and so on—contain data sets called “places” or “locations,” collections of entries and tags sourced from user input (via reviews, ratings, and wiki-style fields for entering business hours, menus, etc.), organized through machine-assisted processes of agglomeration and curation (sorting into lists, categories, suggestions), and attached to pairs of coordinates. I want to find some coffee in a neighborhood I’m unfamiliar with: the search results will appear on an interactive map; they will have been annotated with various data and descriptors, which will expand if I am looking for more details. I am trying to make a decision. What will be offered on the menu? What kind of space am I about to enter? How busy will it be? What is its ambiance like? How much will it cost me? How quickly can I get in and out? The platform is supposed to help me answer these questions in advance—preempting a “bad decision.”

Google has helpfully provided some of the more popular places stored on its Maps platform with what it calls “snapshots” or “editorial summaries,” compiled by writers presumably employed or contracted by the tech company itself.  Made up of one or two tight phrases, the blurbs are typeset in italics just below the full name of a given business or landmark, and attributed only to “Google.” Their purpose is to provide glosses of the associated place data. There is no evident rule for the assignment of such summaries other than a loosely-defined “popularity”—either a place will be graced with a summary from Google, or it will not. 

Living in New York this summer, and using Google Maps frequently, I began developing a poem from these “editorial summaries.” “SIMPLE PROPERTIES,” excerpted below, is the result. Although most of the text comes from summaries of locations in the New York City area, part of what I am suggesting is that, like a chain restaurant or big box store, Google’s poetics point toward a new ubiquity, with no clear regional or territorial specificity. Cutting phrases and tags from their assigned places, I wanted to perform, diagram, and open up the monolithic language of an emerging International Style, a gentrifying jargon that compresses urban topologies into smooth, seamless, and “quirky” spaces of consumption. This has less to do with a portrait of a place or set of places than with the notion of “any-space-whatever,” the empty collection of “genre features,” “basic settings,” and “relaxed surroundings” that compose the fabric of the generic, antiseptic, overdeveloped city. 


ALEC MAPES-FRANCES B’17 gets lost when his phone dies.