When listing relevant tags for a post discussing the current revolution in Syria, the first thing that comes to mind would most definitely NOT be “cartography”. We’re talking about a countrywide revolution here; nothing can be more static, mundane, or irrelevant than a map, right?
Or at least the Syrian protestors think so. According to an article published last week by the Washington Post, apparently rebellious groups are not just using sheer manpower or weapons to take down the governing Syrian regime. Instead, they are invoking tactics that people normally use after a revolution has succeeded in changing the government: anti-Assad regime techies have been using Map Maker, which is described as a “Google crowdsourcing program,” to alter the names of important landmarks, bridges, roads, and highways in favor of rebel leaders who have contributed to the revolution’s cause. In celebrating the revolution’s heroes, the anti-government activists are destroying any and all remnants of President Assad’s ruling over Syria and are instead replacing these names with their own symbolic icons and events.
Stefan Geens, who is the author of OgleEarth, a blog that monitors GoogleMaps, noted that Syria’s mapping revolution is the first of its kind: no other activist groups have ever used online mapping programs to revise history before.
Not everyone is in favor of this, however. Last Monday, Bashar al-Jafaari, Syria’s representative at the United Nations, blamed Google for this sudden outbreak in name-changing, criticizing the corporation for taking action in the first place: “This is a flagrant violation of United Nations General Assembly, the resolution of the Arab League pertaining to the standardization of the geographic nomenclature.”
Geens points out, however, that Google is not actually playing a part in this. He notes in his own blog how the changing of names is a process in which third-party users, the activists, are in near-total control, as shown in the image below.
While I most definitely empathize with the rebel’s cause and am quite elated that these activists have the courage to symbolically tear down the government as well, I can also see al-Jafaari’s point, too. Google claims that it is using crowdsourcing to approve these geographical revisions, thus absolving them of responsibility from the action itself. Yet it is inherent within the architecture of the program that this name-changing revolution is possible: Google is literally handing the power to the people rather than the Syrian government.
This can lead to some frustrations, for obvious reasons. How much power can Google have in shaping the dynamics of this revolution? Gone are the days where Google is merely our friendly, “go-to” search engine; as time goes on, we are becoming increasingly aware of the real extent of its power. Google has manifested itself in every realm of our lives: it tracks our searches and personalizes advertisements, therefore building a profile of who we are; it analyzes our webpage statistics; it has (or at least attempted to) monitor our social networks; its satellites take pictures of our homes without our consent; and now, it’s even overturning governments.
Personally, the more I learn about Google, the more intimidated I become. With all of these capabilities–and presumably I have only touched on a few of its superpowers–it is over-reaching its power as just a website. Google is a global power, and whether we like it or not, it’s here to stay.