The Rendering Eye / Downtown # 20
Expeditions into the 3D World of Apple Maps
Since September 2012, Apple has offered a mapping service application developed for its iOS6 operating system. Using a new form of 3D imaging, it displays the centers of mainly American cities. The application`s renderings of buildings and streets have elicited criticism and mockery, since the maps and the corresponding images are not without errors... It is these “errors” that provide my project`s point of departure.
The 3D Flyover feature of Apple Maps is based on vector graphics that continually generate new images according to positions selected by its users. These renderings undoubtedly constitute the most technologically advanced and contemporary way of viewing cities, based as they are on an incredible stream of photographic data generated by Apple`s new cartography division, which is ironically nicknamed “Sputnik.” At the same time, the machine-generated images are “picturesque” in ways that have never been seen before. They show streets, buildings and industrial installations without any human beings; cars and ships become ephemeral shadows; trees pupate into sculptures; the shapes and colors of architecture and nature testify to algorithms that are breathtakingly mimetic, yet overwhelmed by the details of “reality” nonetheless. The Apple Maps program produces cityscapes that are the pure invention of ceaselessly calculating image-generating machines linked between Cupertino, California and our own homes —and that show real places even so.
These places are simultaneously strange and familiar. Familiar, because they are streets we can walk on, houses we can live in, and intersections we can stand at; yet also strange, because we are denied the pedestrian`s perspective — the viewing angle of these cityscapes, in fact, is never less than 45 degrees from ground level. Therefore the program systematically produces an observer`s perspective from outside and above — in precisely the same way that, during the Age of Absolutism, Matthäus Merian`s copperplate engravings presented views of European cities for the first time in their entirety, as bird`s-eye plans, and thus from the perspective of a ruler. Later, military reconnaissance from air balloons, and soon thereafter from airplanes, expanded the view from above to entire landscapes, capturing them on photographic plates and strategically exploiting them.
Do the iPad`s Flyover images also belong in the index of this panoptical gaze, which is now made possible not only thanks to satellite-supported technologies but can also be attributed above all to the media devices of navigation systems and surveillance cameras, of video missiles and today`s drone wars? Indeed, the software used by Apple Maps is based on the know-how of Saab`s military technology division in Sweden — it involves declassified technologies for target-seeking rockets and missiles. As a spin-off from Saab, the firm C3 Technologies further developed this software for civilian applications, and was acquired by Apple in 2011. If we follow the dictum of the late German media theorist Friedrich Kittler, namely that the media are the “misuse of military equipment,” it should come as no surprise that Apple Maps renderings are simultaneously closely related to current military technologies and yet far removed from actual police surveillance, military air control, or the view of drone pilots during target acquisition. This is because firstly, they were generated as “frozen” moments on some unknown date when data from airplanes was calculated in Cupertino, California (or in Linköping, Sweden?), and therefore they do not allow for any surveillance of “life.” Secondly, the feeling of serene inebriation that can grip an observer during a “flyover” of New York, Sydney or Berlin is far more closely related, for example, to the witch`s mad ride over Moscow`s rooftops imagined by Mikhail Bulgakov in 1940 in The Master and Margarita, or the fascination of Félix Nadar, who in 1858 became the first to ascend in a balloon with a camera to photograph Paris from the air. Whereas this modern photographer of the skies risked life and limb (and his wife was severely injured during a crash landing), the condition postmoderne leaves us, as uninvolved and unmolested users, entirely outside events. For the contemporary user, the city on a mobile device becomes a pure picture and a place of longing, somewhere we are not.
The fact that Apple is currently working on improving the database of its renderings already heralds the end of the special quality of these images: soon the streams of data will have expanded many times over again; the algorithms will have been refined and the visualizations of reality so perfected that these cartographic images will turn into simulated immediacy, and thereby become artlessly mimetic. At that point the 3D renderings will no longer produce a picture, but rather a flat image that will be indistinguishable from a photograph – a photograph which, for its part, will no longer be distinguishable from a rendered image. In light of this anticipated development, the screen shots presented on this website are already a memory of a future past, when computer-generated cityscapes were still “picturesque.”
(co-written with Philipp Sarasin)
The images shown on this website are the works of Regula Bochsler. They are based on screenshots taken from Apple Maps. Apple Maps is a registered trademark of Apple, Inc.