Another Example of Google Maps’ Shortcomings..

From this week’s reading, two points significantly stood out to me. One relating to the idea of a map as a temporal tool rather than spatial one. The second one is how tools like Google Earth continue and uplift colonial legacies. In “Visualizing Sovereignty”, Yarimar Bonilla and Max Hantel highlight that modern maps are drawn within constrains of western cartography which leads to a visualization of sovereignty within the limits of nation-state autonomy. This leaves non-sovereign territories to be drawn as “inexplicable” and ambiguous to the map readers, if they don’t question the history behind the map and what made it become what it is. One of the solutions that Yarimar Bonilla shifts to is the representation of the Caribbean as a temporal map that is ordered by the year on which Caribbean societies shifted from colonial status. Such a map helps in putting the geospatial representation within a temporal space, which helps “unsettle views of contemporary borders” — example of “The invasion of America Project”.

This text reminded of an incident that went viral a few weeks ago. I remember seeing a lot of posts on Twitter and Instagram about how Google removed Palestine completely from Google Maps. I went to check on Google maps for myself, I navigated to the location of Palestine on the map and found “Israel” written as the country name. There were a lot of articles written on this and there were a lot of calls for Google to recognize Palestine on the map “again”. However, after a few days, the truth came out: Google never removed Palestine on the map, simply because it never had it on the map. One particular response from a Google expert on a forum on the google support website caught my attention.

The Google expert said that “Google takes a neutral view when it comes to countries, borders, etc; and uses the overall consensus of all nations and how cartographers around the world depict such matters.  As the world situation changes, so will Maps.” If Google hold such a neutral view on political conflicts, why would it so blatantly choose to represent Israel instead of Palestine on the map? In fact, Palestine is recognized by the UN and its members as an independent state. However, it is not recognized by the US. This highlights the US-centric  foundation that a tool so widely used around the world is built upon. The map here becomes a tool that showcases racial capitalism and white supremacy, rather than one that helps explore different parts of the world. In doing so, Google erases ten thousand years of Palestinian history and culture and turns a blind eye on more than 70 years of violent Israeli colonization of Palestine.

Mayukh Sen brought up a very similar example of how Google Earth has “the legacies of colonialism programmed into it” like many other platforms.  In this article, Mayukh Sen highlights how Google Earth only mapped out major cities in India, when the hundreds or thousands of smaller cities and villages are just a blurry insignificant image on the screen labeled by its anglicized name, making it harder for natives to find their own homes, because they are not essential to white, western audiences. According to Mayukh Sen, this makes “Google a de facto neocolonial force, whether or not it intends to be”.

2 thoughts on “Another Example of Google Maps’ Shortcomings..

  1. Brianna Caszatt (she/her/hers)

    I was thinking about this Google maps article in a work meeting this morning where we were “learning” about SEO best practices (i.e., how to make Google like our content more), and it’s amazing how much we just take for granted about Google and their secret processes. According to our SEO agency, they’re making an average of 10 updates to search each day as they better determine/decide what people are really searching for. But based on what parameters and input from who?

    For “your money or your life pages” (any page that Google has decided can affect one’s health, happiness, safety, or financial stability), they are supposedly harsher in their judgements. They follow an EAT acronym, for Expertise, Authority, and Trustworthiness: is the author an expert on the subject, is the author a well-recognized authority on the subject, and is the content accurate? But how are these determined? These seem like very loaded terms and subject to much debate (I’m thinking back to previous readings discussing anxiety about being recognized for digital scholarship in the field and feeling much more sympathetic to those scholars). Aren’t they just creating a self-fulfilling loop? They think content meets the EAT standards, which makes it more popular in search, which then proves it meets the EAT standards.

    Same as with the maps, they’re just reinforcing existing power structures in all of their algorithms.

  2. Kristi

    The readings also helped me deepen my analysis of colonialism and I really appreciate how you interrogated Google’s use of neutrality. It’s left me thinking about how this form of authority is perpetuated by the US locally, as well as internationally, and think about how daily decision-making is informed by assumptions related to maps’ neutrality.

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