digital life

Waze and the Politics of Public Spaces

Photo: Chen Zhongqiu/Corbis; Waze

Early in the morning a few days ago, I was driving north on the Saw Mill Parkway to an interview, with no traffic in sight, when my driving app Waze suddenly recommended a strange detour. “Take Exit 17 for Ashford Avenue toward Ardsley,” Siri said. This was perplexing. My destination was another half-hour straight up the highway, and there were virtually no cars on the road. Why get off? But the whole idea of Waze — which supplements a routing algorithm with real-time reports of traffic jams and other impediments from users — is that sometimes a crazy-seeming detour will get you there faster, and so, being generally pretty obliging around technology, I got off the highway. “In 300 feet, make a left,” Siri said, and then Waze recommended another quick left, and then another. I was making a loop around Dobbs Ferry’s tiny downtown. Then the app dumped me right back where I started, by the ramp on to the Saw Mill. “Exit to Saw Mill Parkway northbound,” Siri said placidly, and so I got right back on the highway, resuming my trip as if this strange little detour through Dobbs Ferry had never happened. As I drove north again I was thinking, as I often do when I am driving under the influence of Waze: What beautiful kind of mania is this?

Most driving apps are effectively vast atlases and tools of social order — they promote the major roads in most cases, and funnel each user the same way. But the reliance on real-time user contributions makes Waze — an Israeli product that opened offices in Palo Alto about five years ago (“one of our favorite tools for successfully navigating the morass that is Bay Area traffic,” Wired enthused) and, having been scooped up by Google in 2013, has been making its way East since — far more anarchic. There is an obscure-places poetry, sometimes. Drive toward a packed George Washington Bridge approach and the app may send you off the highway careening on a crazy tour of one-way streets in Fort Lee, through stop signs over little bare knobs of hills, the city bouncing in and out of view in the distance. Get stuck in traffic, and Waze may coax you onto a service road for a mile, letting you gain a couple of miles per hour, before returning you to the main highway, all the drivers you’ve passed now furious.Plug in “Austin-Bergstrom International Airport” — as I did while on a reporting trip to Texas a few months ago — and it may well dump you not at the main entrance but at an Army National Guard depot on the grounds of the airport but miles away from the terminal. Craziness. To let Waze pick your route is to feel a kind of surrender. The presence of all those other users in the system (50 million worldwide, dutifully flagging accidents and vehicles stopped on the side of the road and police cars up ahead) means that you never know whether you are being directed by the machine algorithm or the human ghost within it. You could imagine that my Dobbs Ferry detour was a kind of hiccup in the Waze mapping algorithm, or the consequence of someone driving up the Saw Mill ahead of me and mistakenly flagging an accident when they were trying to text. Or, if you are open to more devious possibilities, you might imagine an unscrupulous coffee-shop owner in downtown Dobbs Ferry continuously reporting phantom accidents on the Saw Mill, hoping to divert customers off the road and past his counter.

Something like this has been happening recently on the west side of L.A. Waze has been routing cars off of the 405 — where traffic achieves a Lahore-like density — and through the fancy neighborhoods nearby: Brentwood, Sherman Oaks, where the new traffic jams have infuriated everyone. In December, the AP reported — relying on anonymous neighborhood sources — that those furious residents were plugging phony accident reports into their app, trying to prompt Waze to redirect the cars somewhere else, away from them. It doesn’t seem to have worked. “With millions of users in L.A., fake, coordinated traffic reports can’t come to fruition because they’ll be negated by the next ten people coming down the street passively using Waze,” the company’s spokeswoman Julie Mossler said, a little triumphantly. But then last week the Waze Wars escalated again: The city’s police chief, Charlie Beck, said at a press conference that the app’s feature in which users flag patrol cars with radar guns would make the cops in those cars sitting ducks for assassins, if some crazy person in L.A. decided to go ahead and copy Ismaaiyl Brinsley.

Everyone is at his worst when he is driving in traffic. The whole act pits you in a selfish competition against the rest of the world. A couple of weeks ago, driving along I-80 in heavy traffic into the city from my in-laws’ house, Waze suddenly nudged me off the highway and onto a service road. I gained maybe five miles an hour, but by the time it moved me back onto the main road, a mile later, I had passed five or six other drivers who were furious, having watched me the whole way. Part of me wanted to point to my phone (“Waze made me do it!”), but I didn’t. I had the more powerful, gleeful feeling of having gotten away with something, of having outsmarted everyone else.

The big political questions about new technologies tend to revolve around whether they will be tools of social control or anarchy, and the public concern over tech tends to flip back and forth between the two. After the Arab Spring, most of the discussion was about the anarchic possibilities, but after the Edward Snowden revelations the worries flipped to the control side. During the past year — with the rise of the sharing economy and drones — these anxieties seem to have reversed again, maybe a little more subtly this time. But of course we are always experimenting with systems of control and chaos — the matter of what will be private and what will be public is being pushed from both directions at once.

Many of these conflicts take place in virtual spaces — over what kinds of communication ought to be private and what kinds open to the public. But some of it takes place in physical space too. Drones — private aircraft mounted with cameras, flying over private and public property in ambiguously regulated space — are one obvious expression. In its own way — in these strange, dark-arts misdirections onto side streets, in the conflicts with moneyed homeowners and cops in Los Angeles — Waze is another one. The promise of Waze is that it occupies public spaces while subverting the public’s control of that space — the cops, whose speed traps are flagged by passing Wazers, and the arterial systems by which we funnel traffic away from residential neighborhoods. I think this explains that strange little feeling you get, both a bit anxious and a bit excited, when Waze starts sending your car on some manic sprint away from traffic, through tiny streets on the outskirts of town, giving only a cursory pump of the brakes at inconvenient stop signs. Waze opens up physical places where you are not really sure you are supposed to be.