The week before last was the International Cartography Conference in Dresden, Germany. I participated in a pre-conference workshop ‘Maps and Games’ where alongside Manchester PhD student Clancy Wilmott I tentatively put forward an idea for an island-based exploration game designed for undergraduate Geography students.
I also presented a joint paper in the full conference with Utrecht PhD student Alex Gekker. This was in the ‘Playing with Maps’ session on the Monday morning and centered on the implications of a social navigation application called Waze (the paper is downloadable here) for maps, mapping practices, driving and the nature of play in a technologically-saturated world.
One of the keynotes that resonated more so than any other – ESRI’s Jack Dangermond gave a regurgitated, run-of-the-mill view of the future of mapping, for instance – was given early on the Friday, admittedly as the conference was drawing to a close and the majority of attendees had left. But despite this graveyard slot, Martin Haueis of German automobile corporation Daimler AG (owner of Mercedes-Benz), gave the most illuminating speech of the week. I was initially drawn to it based on the advertised title ‘Digital Maps for Highly Automated Driving’, and its relevance to my own work alongside Alex on the interface between mapping, technology and driving.
Haueis’ talk spoke to the technological difficulties lying ahead for automobile companies as they seek to develop automated systems for new vehicles. Two in particular were presented by Haueis alongside glossy promotional videos. The first was an Assisted Parking Lot System designed to completely automate the multi-story parking procedure from drop-off to park to pick-up. In the demonstration, users need only send and call their vehicle using, naturally, their smartphone. An algorithmic parking system does the rest. In the second example, Haueis showcased a Highway Automation System that allowed drivers to enter onto a designated highway and relinquish control to the vehicle itself. Navigation between lanes, around slower-moving vehicles as well as speeding up and down would then rest with the System itself. The latter was a kind of cruise control 2.0 for the long-distance driver. The former, an urban fix for that ever-canny problem of where and how to park in the city.
Out of these two ambitious but wholly imaginable glimpses into the future the Assisted Parking Lot System took my greater interest. I had a casual, speculative discussion on the technology with Alex later that day and got round to the nature of agency by way of a rather far-fetched example. So let me explain via the medium of a short story – a narrative perhaps routed in the speculative nature of sci-fi titles; so think J.G. Ballard. If Ballard had cared enough about automated parking systems to write about them.
“THE protagonist drops their vehicle off at one of Daimler’s / NCP’s / Other Private Car Park Operator’s new, multi-story Automated Parking Lot. The charge, naturally, is even greater than other non-automated car parks. Even greater than, say – shock horror – parking by the side of the road. Convenience and speed being the enticing factors for time-conscious (and stressed out!) vehicle owners and suburban commuters. As per the now-routinized commands, drivers are expected to drive into the vehicle drop-off zone, and whilst leaving the car running close the door, exit to safety, and activate the parking of their vehicle via the recently-downloaded Assisted Parking Lot Application on their smartphone. Once the touch gesture is executed, the application secures a data connection with the Central Assisted Parking Lot Server, which in turn calls the Assisted Parking Lot Vehicle Receiver in the linked vehicle (a Mercedes-Benz, natch) setting it off on a slow but steady drive into the parking lot. Upon entry, the vehicle is directed to a parking space of appropriate size, shape and clearance for its type; equal dimension lots being a thing of the past thanks to the prevalence of these algorithmically-sorted parking systems.
This is a normal day in the city. But like any normal day in the city the software on the desktop computers, tablets, smartphones in the homes and hands of tech-savvy inhabitants, or in the IT departments of major service firms, global universities and governmental branches needs updating. As ever, such updates are routine, perhaps weekly or more frequently, and often occur in the background without users ever knowing they are now operating version 1.1.23 of their favourite online auction application. Only, they now see that yes, in fact, they can now scan and sync photographs of the latest styles spotted on strangers in the street with their favourite online auction application; making that lunch hour purchase that fractionally quicker but all the more satisfying for it!
Except, today there is an issue. The software firm responsible for managing Daimler’s / NCP’s / Other Private Car Park Operator’s latest Automated Parking Lot has been experiencing some problems. In particular, updates to its Lot Database have stalled, as well as corrections to what is known as the Active Floor Footage Database. Routinely, such updates are carried out at night when no vehicles enter nor exit the car park, and are checked either remotely or on-site by management operators early the following day. On this occasion the due-in on-site operative has called in sick, so the updates are checked rather hastily by an overworked (and underslept!) employee at the head office of the Private Car Park Operator. Except, she has overlooked a rather crucial element: the software update has failed to take into account another non-digital maintenance event taking place. Two workmen have arrived to re-surface a corner of the multi-story car park and have marked out their area with a still-ubiquitous set of maintenance objects: a set of orange, reflective, weighted traffic cones, reels of billowing ‘warning’ tape, and a miss-spelt, soggy and poorly-placed apology sign (for the inconvenience). Due to the noise of their re-surfacing equipment both operatives are ear-muffled and deaf to their surroundings, leaving others to note their existence. But due to the catalogue of small, perhaps commonly inconsequential happenings there is no one to do so. No on-site employee is overseeing the Assisted Parking Lot, and no remote operative is monitoring the automated parking. But more critically, no software update has re-calculated the number of ‘active’ and ‘open’ parking spaces in the Lot Database on this particular morning, nor re-calibrated the total ‘live’ drive-space in the Active Floor Footage Database either. As such, both workmen are exposed to the whim of the algorithm.
Death by Assisted Parking Lot System may sound like the sophomore album of a American, post-Kraftwerk electronic band, but is also the possible post-mortem of a maintenance duo coded out of, made invisible by, and ultimately sacrificed to, an urban driving innovation.”
Apologies if this story may seem alarmist! It wasn’t meant to be a luddite’s view of the future. What I was intending to show from this short narrative of the Assisted Parking Lot was actually something slightly less hyperbolic. One simple question can be posed in relation to this story: “who is responsible for the deaths of the workmen?”, presuming that the reader has been able to read between the lines in this quasi-sci-fi narrative and conclude that due to the failed software update this fateful morning, one of the vehicles entering the parking lot has recognized a different extant space than is usable (due to the workmen’s presence) and attempts to drive into the area occupied by the road re-surfacers and tragically kills them in the process. A speculative story, maybe, but one that nonetheless provokes us to think about the nature of agency, culpability and intention in a technologically-mediated world. In this narrative I have attempted to bring into sight a ‘possible future’. A proposed worse case scenario should such technology become commonplace.
So who is responsible for the deaths of the workmen? The Private Car Park Operators? The on-site employee for his absence? The remote worker for his incomplete software update checks? The vehicle owner, perhaps somewhat vicariously, for their complicity in buying into the latest driving experience? The software coder for an incomplete and ‘buggy’ update? The software itself? The vehicle manufacturer for failing to build-in a more comprehensive safety mechanism for such instances? The driving standards agency for failing to address the potential risks of automated parking systems? Or the workmen themselves for their inadequate site assessments?
How we proceed in understanding such assemblages is dependent on a new set of methods to interrogate life itself. How can we begin to piece together the intertwining bodies and technologies present in such an event? Especially when it potentially concerns the death of a human being or beings. In some senses we already rely on these kinds of mechanisms The classic example being of the modern airport; a code-space reliant upon the intertwining of code and coded objects for bodies (human/non-human) to move seamlessly. But with the modern airport being understood as coded, securitized and routine, what becomes a profitable theoretical avenue? One interrogating the hefty baggage (pardon the pun) of the airport? Or one challenging a new – as yet unsecured – technological assemblage? Unless there is a significant rupture to unsettle the first – in the way 9/11 did – I’d suggest interrogating the second. At this point it becomes even more critical to invest time and energy into understanding a world where the interaction between human and digital object is becoming deeply naturalized.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, you have may guessed I’ve spent the last week or so reading on agency and causality. But in light of last week’s presentation by Martin Haueis I thought it worthwhile to develop an hypothetical but still practically possible narrative to open up a debate surrounding new driving technologies, spatial practices, mapping and agency.