New Google Earth controversy in Japan similar to Bowman Expeditions controversy


In this computer screen image taken from the Google Earth software, a feudal map of a village in central Japan from hundreds of years ago, superimposed on a modern street map, is shown. The village is clearly labeled “eta,” an old word for Japan’s outclass of untouchables known as “burakumin.” The word literally means “filthy mass” and is now considered to be a racial slur. The burakumin still face prejudice based on where they live or their ancestors lived, and fear that Google’s software can be used to easily pinpoint the old villages and match them up with modern neighborhoods. (AP Photo/Google Earth)

Google has recently got into trouble with its new Google Earth layers in Japan. Although they’re not providing any new information that wasn’t already out there, the “power of the Google” has brought on a fresh controversy. As always, it’s not about the technology.

I’ve written about these cross-cultural misunderstandings and controversies elsewhere, mostly in reference to the recent controversy in geography concerning community mapping in Oaxaca, Mexico. During the AAG for example there was much discussion about mapping, GIS and indigenous participation and objection around the work of Jerry Dobson and Peter Herlihy of Kansas University–the so-called Bowman Expeditions. (See here for a page of documents concerning the issue.)

One of the main lines of argument centers around the response “we did nothing wrong; we declared our sources of funding; we got local agreement; and our intentions are honorable.” What we’ve learned I think is that the debate is not about those facts per se; or perhaps more exactly that those responses, which might be thought to be controversy-ending in and of themselves, are either insufficient or irrelevant, even if they’re true.

I think I’m satisfied in my own mind that the Bowman Expeditions (regrettable name, as I told Jerry Dobson) did declare their funding from the DoD, were going to make their findings public and not just for the military, and have good intentions (reducing US arrogance and ignorance about foreign cultures, doing what Edward Said called for, ie letting the indigenous speak, and yes I know about Spivak). But once they took DoD funding they opened themselves to the same problems as the Human Terrain System (HTS) has.* It’s also evident that local groups differ one fro another, or even over time (agreements can be given and later withdrawn).

As I say above, the issue comes when two “worlds” come into contact. You can’t just do what is right by your lights, getting your IRBs signed off etc.If this post has any relevance to the blog, and it doesn’t, much, it’s that being-in-the-world (Heidegger), or the practice of freedom (Foucault) is not a set of rules or procedures that can be codified by eg a code of ethics. Who was it who said that the system is unable to account for anything outside the system?

When worlds collide, so to speak, it’s not the technology itself that lies at the heart of the matter, but the worldview, cultural orientations, expectations and histories that matter.

Here for example are some quotes from the story:

The company provided no explanation or historical context, as is common practice in Japan. Its basic stance is that its actions are acceptable because they are legal, one that has angered burakumin leaders.

“If there is an incident because of these maps, and Google is just going to say ‘it’s not our fault’ or ‘it’s down to the user,’ then we have no choice but to conclude that Google’s system itself is a form of prejudice,” said Toru Matsuoka, a member of Japan’s upper house of parliament.

Asked about its stance on the issue, Google responded with a formal statement that “we deeply care about human rights and have no intention to violate them.”

The more issues of this sort there are (and currently we not only have this Google issue, the Bowman Expeditions issue, but also the $10 million lawsuit against Jared Diamond, as well as the ongoing HTS issue) the more calls we will see for “codes of ethics” and indeed HTS-like solutions.

Here’s more. Notice the first quote. The maps come from David Rumsey, a well-known map collector who puts a lot of his collection online for free.

“This is a classic example of Google outsourcing the risk and appropriating the benefit of their investment,” said David Vaile, executive director of the Cyberspace Law and Policy Center at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

The maps in question are part of a larger collection of Japanese maps owned by the University of California at Berkeley. Their digital versions are overseen by David Rumsey, a collector in the U.S. who has more than 100,000 historical maps of his own. He hosts more than 1,000 historical Japanese maps as part of a massive, English-language online archive he runs, and says he has never had a complaint.

It was Rumsey who worked with Google to post the maps in its software, and who was responsible for removing the references to the buraku villages. He said he preferred to leave them untouched as historical documents, but decided to change them after the search company told him of the complaints from Tokyo.

“We tend to think of maps as factual, like a satellite picture, but maps are never neutral, they always have a certain point of view,” he said.

* Incidentally I met and had a long conversation with two geographers in the HTS at the AAG meetings. I don’t think we agreed on things, but they were open to dialog, not secretive, gave me their names etc. I would like to see a dialog on this in geography, perhaps at next year’s AAG meetings in DC.

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