Date: Thursday 23 March 2017
Venue: EB.G.35, Western Sydney University, Parramatta South campus
(Institute for Culture and Society)
Maps of the Drawn Away: Technological Abstraction and Accumulation in Google Maps
Along with the forces of production, the forces of abstraction have increased over the course of capitalist modernity. Since the end of WWII and the rise of ‘cybernetic capitalism’ the forces of abstraction have greatly expanded, both intensively and extensively. They now project themselves into virtually every aspect of everyday life. Using the case of Google Maps this paper explores the subjective and material processes of abstraction. It begins by looking at abstraction in its ‘mechanized’ sense, a formulation which draws on computer science and the ‘levels of abstraction’ conceptualization. In this process, ‘mechanized abstraction’ uses technology to suppress complexity in order to grant an organizing power. To give examples of this I discuss how currency, clocks and cartography have acted as abstracting technologies in modernity and how these have been used as part of—in Lewis Mumford’s words—capitalism’s “quest of power by means of abstraction”. I then consider how these three technologies have been incorporated into computing-machines and become ‘technologically-augmented’. Now generalized across society, computing-machines project abstraction, promoting patterns of disembodied integration and constituting more abstract ways of being-in-the-world. As these more abstracted layers are projected across society, they can reconstitute other layers of social practice, sometimes causing conflict, ambivalence and contradictions. The later part of the paper turns to examine these ontological implications. Google Maps is a fascinating example of how social practice is reconstituted in more abstract ways. The ‘empty time’ (Benjamin) and ‘abstract space’ (Lefebvre) of modernity are being greatly intensified by hand-held computing-machines and woven deeper into everyday practice. This can be seen in the atomizing processes of targeted advertising that plays out in Google Maps and how this phenomena fractures and multiples space as more and more people outsource their spatial awareness. These examples show how abstraction is put into the service of cybernetic capitalism.
Timothy Erik Ström grew-up in regional Australia and has an academic background in cultural studies, media studies and political-economy. After living in Spain and South Korea, he moved to Melbourne and began a PhD. Timothy is currently a candidate at Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University with a thesis called Mapping Google Maps: Critiquing an Ideological Vision of the World (currently on the verge of submission). He teaches ‘Global Political Economy’ at RMIT, works as a researcher and writes speculative fiction.