Take the case of Waze, a company based in Tel Aviv, Israel, that believes it has unlocked the key to turning maps and traffic data into a commodity so cheap that no one will be able to charge for it—not even them. Waze has created a combination of smart-phone apps and websites that lets users build maps and report traffic conditions within a Wikipedia-like system.
Waze was born in 2006, when founder Ehud Shabtai coded an add-on for a commercial GPS system that let users map the location of speed cameras. Within three days, he says, users had mapped every camera in Israel.
To see just how revolutionary this is, consider the efforts that early states had to go through to map their territory. Below are several key quotes from James Scott’s Seeing Like a State. Although the point of the chapter from which they are drawn concerns cadastral mapping (maps of an area typically used to convey information about ownership, taxation, and the like), the argument can apply to the larger category of top-down maps without much overgeneralization.
“The fiscal or administrative goal toward which all modern states aspire is to measure, codify, and simplify land tenure….” (p. 36)
“These state simplifications, like all state simplifications, are always far more static and schematic than the actual social phenomena they presume to typify.” (p. 46)
“All centralizing states recognized the value of a uniform, comprehensive cadastral map Carrying out the mapmaking, however, was another matter. As a rule of thumb, cadastral mapping was earlier and more comprehensive where a powerful central state could impose itself on a relatively weak civil society.” (p. 49)
Shabtai’s traffic camera maps turns this hierarchy right on its head. Rather than enshrining the powerful, crowd-sourced maps empower the everyman. Politics is everywhere.