lauren studebaker

Google Maps and Heterotopias

Text by Lauren Studebaker

Edited by Reese Riley

The construct of cyberspace creates Foucaultian other­places, or digital cities, for interaction that are both independent from and dependent on real­world mechanisms. With the creation of the Internet came the creation of new social spaces in virtual environments that are “constituted of multiple intelligent layers, based on real­time interaction, communication and location based content, the digital city is beyond the physical buildings and urban environment.” (Handlykken) The physical makeup of Internet anatomy has its own ephemeral architecture­­ it exists as a network without a central origin. Although physically inaccessible, the digital world is inundated in our reality; when we look into a computer screen, run our fingers over a trackpad to move a cursor, or type a message into a chat window, we’re gesturing into the unreal plane using the digital medium as an extension of ourselves and our real­world boundaries. Our physical input (a scroll, a click, a drag) and the instant visual feedback provide the visible boundaries that push the user into conceiving net­space as real­space. When one interacts with the internet through a digital action, the other­ landscape, or imaginary territory of cyberspace becomes an extension of the physical world.

Cyberspace is a transitory environment, an unreal boundary that creates a transition between two real spaces, while simultaneously setting them up. Here, a heterotopia appears as an ethereal vessel between two real environments as “that of the boat, a floating space searching for new colonies ­­ themselves imagined heterotopias that represent most clearly the Other,” (Foucault) meaning that the boat itself is a heterotopia, as it is a socially defined space in between two locations while being sequestered from all other spaces due to its passage in a body of water. Defined web spaces with defined purposes, such as Google Maps, have been created within the Internet which acts as a vessel between the independent locations of the participants and destinations in communications.

In a heterotopic moment par excellence, the function of the “other” in Google Maps is “outside of all other places” while nevertheless setting up our real space. Foucault’s allegory of a mirror can be applied here:

“The mirror functions as a heterotopia in this respect: it makes this place that I occupy at the moment when I look at myself in the glass at once absolutely real, connected with all the space that surrounds it, and absolutely unreal, since in order to be perceived it has to pass through this virtual point which is over there.”

The reality present in the reflection is not unlike the digital: both are representations of real spaces that are mediated by a sort of technology, whether it be an analog or digital mechanism. Asne Handlykken makes this connection when describing digital cities, using the Google Maps application as a representation of this mirror. Real places are recreated through the use of mapping technologies and photography, and can be explored through a device while navigating the real world, creating a digital mirror; “instead of seeing ourselves as a part of the city fabric, inhabiting a three­dimensional urban condition, we dwell in a permanent out­of­body experience, displaced from our own locations, seeing ourselves as moving dots or pins on a map.” One can peruse and interact within the boundaries of Google’s archived space as Google Maps’ other­landscapes create an unreal representation of reality to explore and manipulate, a place outside of society where the environments of the world can be explored. To stretch, the use of Google Maps as a directional tool could hint at Foucault’s idea of crisis heterotopias­­ one enters the environment in hopes of finding directions and therefore reform, and in the end directing one to their final destination.

Foucault’s tenet stated that heterotopias control access through an act of opening and closing, which here can include identification, payment, registration, purification, or demonstration and worship. Web­exchanges require a similar ritual; first, obtaining the proper hardware to access the app, then using the current location function to register, one enters the other­mirror. The user demonstrates their registration by moving on a matrix towards the sacred (the final destination) via the worship of the virtual destination, making an action out of the possibility of arrival. Users are restricted to the mechanics of the user interface and the limits of their access and interactions based on the pixel dimensions of app windows. When the user is finished, they can log­out­­ completing the trip into the digi­heterotope.

Other­spaces are “most often linked to slices in time...the heterotopia begins to function at full capacity when men arrive at a sort of absolute break with their traditional time.” The images and landscapes to explore within Google Maps are snapshots taken at a such a “slice of time”; one can type in their address in the middle of winter and see their home in all of its blooming spring glory, preserved by the camera mechanism of the Google Maps vehicles. A Foucauldian graveyard­heterotopia appears in the form of these visual memories as headstones, sampling moments in time in different represented landscapes. Entombed, the images are preserved as long as the app exists as an archive, in “which time never stops building up and topping its own summit.”