Uber’s ghost map and the meaning of greyballing

Uber is not only a scofflaw, but, as Mike Isaac of the New York Times reported last week, the company has been running an elaborate program to deceive and evade cops and other local officials in cities where its car service has been banned or lacks authorization to operate. The centerpiece of the scheme is a piece of software called Greyball, which uses a variety of data, including credit-card records, to identify what Uber calls “opponents.” When an opponent hails a car using the Uber app, the app presents the opponent with a fake map, filled with “ghost cars” that don’t actually exist. The map overlays a fictional story, intended to mislead, on a representation of actual city streets. Beyond the ethical and legal questions it raises, Greyball sheds important light on the digital representations of reality that we increasingly rely on to live our lives. These representations do more than mediate reality; they manufacture reality.

Traditional cartographers knew that they were creating mere representations of the world, but their goal was to achieve representational accuracy. They strove to provide map users with an objectively true, if necessarily incomplete, rendering of reality. As the semantician Alfred Korzybski wrote in his 1933 book Science and Sanity, “A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness.” There were times when mapmakers were pulled into propaganda campaigns, made to produce distorted maps to trick people for political ends, but those episodes were exceptions to the rule. The cartographic ideal was always to produce “correct” representations of the world that people could rely on for navigational or educational purposes. The mapmaker served the interests of the map user.

The digital maps that we see on our phones are different. They are created primarily for marketing rather than cartographic purposes. The interests they ultimately serve are those of the companies that create them and incorporate them into broader products or services. While a digital map can be useful to the user, its usefulness no longer derives from its accuracy or correctness in representing territory. In a digital map, the traditional map becomes a substrate on which a new, and fictionalized, representation of the world is presented. The digital map that appears on phones and other screens is at least twice removed from reality. What it tells us is that we need to refine and extend Korzybski’s famous distinction. It is no longer enough to say that the map is not the territory. What we have to say now is this: the map is not the map.

Uber’s ghost map provides a particularly stark example of the way a digital representation of the actual world can be manipulated, surreptitiously, to create a digital representation of a fictional world. As Uber itself has admitted, Greyball has been used in many different circumstances in order “to hide the standard city app view for individual riders, enabling Uber to show that same rider a different version.” In addition to deceiving authorities, the software has been used, the company says, for such purposes as “the testing of new features by employees; marketing promotions; fraud prevention; to protect our partners from physical harm; and to deter riders using the app in violation of our terms of service.” That sounds like a pretty much unbounded portfolio of potential uses. Have you been greyballed? It’s impossible to say.

But even Uber’s “standard city app view” presents a fictionalized picture of the world, at once useful and seductive:

The Uber map is a media production. It presents a little, animated entertainment in which you, the user, play the starring role. You are placed at the very center of things, wherever you happen to be, and you are surrounded by a pantomime of oversized automobiles poised to fulfill your desires, to respond immediately to your beckoning. It’s hard not to feel flattered by the illusion of power that the Uber map grants you. Every time you open the app, you become a miniature superhero on a city street. You send out a bat signal, and the batmobile speeds your way. By comparison, taking a bus or a subway, or just hoofing it, feels almost insulting.

In a similar way, a Google map also sets you in a fictionalized story about a place, whether you use the map for navigation or for searching. You are given a prominent position on the map, usually, again, at its very center, and around you a city personalized to your desires takes shape. Certain business establishments and landmarks are highlighted, while other ones are not. Certain blocks are highlighted as “areas of interest“; others are not. Sometimes the highlights are paid for, as advertising; other times they reflect Google’s assessment of you and your preferences. You’re not allowed to know precisely why your map looks the way it does. The script is written in secret.

It’s not only maps. The news and message feeds presented to you by Facebook, or Apple or Google or Twitter, are also stories about the world, fictional representations manufactured both to appeal to your desires and biases and to provide a compelling context for advertising. Mark Zuckerberg may wring his hands over “fake news,” but fake news is to the usual Facebook feed what the Greyball map is to the usual Uber map: an extreme example of the norm.

When I talk about “you,” I don’t really mean you. The “you” around which the map or the news feed or any other digitized representation of the world coalesces is itself a representation. As John Cheney-Lippold explains in his forthcoming book We Are Data, companies like Facebook and Google create digital versions of their users derived through an algorithmic analysis of the data they collect about their users. The companies rely on these necessarily fictionalized representations for both technical reasons (human beings can’t be computed; to be rendered computable, you have to be turned into a digital representation) and commercial reasons (a digital representation of a person can be bought and sold). The “you” on the Uber map or in the Facebook feed is a fake — a character in a story — but it’s a useful and a flattering fake, so you accept it as an accurate portrayal of yourself: an “I” for an I.

Greyballing is not an aberration of the virtual world. Greyballing is the essence of virtuality.

Images: Uber.