If information equals power, then what did Google just do to North Korea by releasing map data of the country including satellite views of its gulags? Until this week North Korea was just a blank space. Now we see subway stops, hotels -- and enormous gulags like the Bukchang Gulag in the photo above. Much of the info comes from "citizen cartographers" who volunteered their help.
Evan Osnos in the New Yorker has a thoughtful article about what this means.
"Maps are so closely associated with power that dictatorships regard information on geography as a state secret. When I was a student in China in the nineties, the schools where I studied included 'detailed maps' in the list of contraband, along with dissident memoirs and porn. Even recently, China has arrested foreign researchers who were seeking to acquire detailed data on the land, either for extractive industries or other purposes."
That said, Osnos points out that the North Korea map data "reminds us just how much we still can not see," and how much we still don't know about what goes on inside that country. And while the map data is interesting to us, it won't have much impact inside North Korea since hardly anybody has Internet access.
Google Chairman Eric Schmidt recently traveled to North Korea. A Google spokesman told the Washington Post that Schmidt's visit and the release of map data were not related. Still, it's hard to imagine Schmidt didn't at least mention to his hosts that this was about to happen. I can imagine Schmidt pointing out to his hosts that in an age of crowd-sourcing and satellites, it's really no longer possible to hide.
I can't help thinking that Google just did something significant here, and also that Sergey Brin, whose family escaped oppression in the Soviet Union and who is said to have strong feelings about the subject, maybe had something to do with it.
At the very least Google has reminded us how incredibly strange it is that even now, in 2013, an entire country can remain so walled off from the rest of the world. Those gulags are the size of cities. Who are the people living in them? What are their lives like?
This is the conversation that Google is provoking.
This is not the first time technology has been wielded as a geopolitical tool (eg drones, Stuxnet) but this time it's different, because this time the entity using technology to push for change is not a country but a company.
This is Google claiming a new role for itself. This is a tech company becoming a political actor, taking an interest in things that go beyond its product line and its bottom line, flexing its nerd muscles and daring to challenge a tyrant.
Image courtesy of Google Maps.