Performance Artist Creates Fake Traffic Jam on Google Maps With Wagon Full of iPhones

Robin Zlotnick - Author

Feb. 4 2020, Updated 11:27 a.m. ET

If you were recently in Berlin and watched a guy wheeling a red wagon full of iPhones around, don't worry. That was just performance artist Simon Weckert, who managed to use that wagon of smartphones to create fake traffic jams on Google Maps. 

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While the streets were almost completely empty of cars, Simon walked the wagon through them. As he did, the streets on Google Maps filled up with red lines and rerouted drivers to avoid traffic that simply wasn't there.

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The project's artist statement acknowledges that Google Maps has changed everything, from how we interact with maps to get where we're going to finding a romantic partner within a certain geographical area via apps like Tinder. 

"But what is the relationship between the art of enabling and techniques of supervision, control, and regulation in Google’s maps?" Weckert asks. "Do these maps function as dispositive nets that determine the behavior, opinions, and images of living beings, exercising power and controlling knowledge?"

Seems like they kind of do. 

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A Google rep told Business Insider that Google Maps works by "continuously pinging smartphones that use location services" in addition to using reports and contributions from the Google Maps community. 

In short, the more phones in an area with location services turned on, the more traffic Google Maps detects and shows on the app. Even, apparently, if all those phones are in one small wagon being wheeled around by an artist.

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Apparently, Google has been able to distinguish between cars and motorcycles and has launched that capability in several countries. "Though we haven't quite cracked traveling by wagon," the representative told Business Insider.

They said they appreciate creative projects like Simon's because it alerts them to hacks. A wagon full of 99 iPhones, all with Google Maps turned on will help the engineers of the app improve their technology. "It helps us make maps work better over time," the Google rep said. 

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Simon told Business Insider, "There is no such thing as neutral data. Data is always collected for a specific purpose, by a combination of people, technology, money, commerce, and government." His aim with this project was to "draw attention to the blind trust that many people have in tech companies and platforms."

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I know if my maps app shows a traffic jam, I automatically try to find a route with less red. But watching the streets light up as Simon walked his wagon of iPhones down the road made me realize Google Maps is not a completely foolproof technology; its success is determined by certain factors that assume people aren't actively trying to dismantle it. 

You can watch the YouTube video Simon posted of the experiment, which was done last summer but posted now in honor of Google Maps' 15th anniversary. In it, you'll see how the road turns red wherever he and his iPhone wagon are.

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"Maps have the potential as an instrument of power for some intentions. They substitute political and military power," Simon told Business Insider. He said that we "tend to see them as objective ... thus data are viewed as the world itself, forgetting that the numbers are only representing a model of the world."

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