Life and death on Google Maps

On 31 March 2017, I went for a bike ride in the mid-afternoon, pointing my bike towards Mt Keira. On the lower slopes, I was passed by another cyclist. ‘Did you hear about the accident?’ I asked at the next set of lights. They said they had, and we waxed about the tragedy of it, the doubt it piled on the future. My question revealed I was a ‘dot-watcher’, and my fellow cyclist revealed the same in their response.

That morning, Mike Hall, a legendary character in the world of ultra-endurance cycling – multiple winner and record holder of the Tour Divide in the USA, winner of the World Cycle Race and TransAm Bicycle Race, and founder of the Transcontinental Race in Europe – was struck by an automobile and killed on the Monaro Highway, just inside the ACT. Hall was competing in the Indian Pacific Wheel Race (IPWR), Australia’s answer to the ultra-endurance races of Europe and North America. News of the tragedy was first hinted at when the dots representing Hall and the race leader, Belgian cyclist Kristof Allegaert, stopped moving.

The IPWR, in the language and imagery employed in its promotion, and in the spirit in which it was founded, harks back to a period of Australian cycling characterised by figures known as ‘the overlanders’. From approximately 1886 until the mid-1900s, figures both charismatic and enigmatic, with names like Percy Armstrong, Arthur Richardson, Francis Birtles, and, perhaps most famously, Hubert ‘Oppy’ Opperman, cycled – and sometimes raced – around Australia.

The motivations for their rides varied, though many were sponsored by companies such as Dunlop and Malvern Star, with the rides serving as advertisements for those companies’ products. Others wrote books and produced still photos and reels of video to document their journeys. The difficulty of the rides was well understood by the general public. For large portions of the routes, particularly across the Nullarbor Plain in an east-west direction and on the North-South route between Port Augusta and Darwin, roads were non-existent and travel often meant pushing through inhospitable terrain lucky to have a telegraph line to follow.

Townsfolk would pour onto the streets to watch the overlanders pass – and the cyclists were performing important work for settler-colonial Australia. Acting as tendrils between disparate communities, they opened, in the minds of the settlers, the possibility of further extending their territory through the utilisation of technology. At the end of an illustrious career, overlander Francis Birtle remarked on his expeditions as having ‘helped to make the interior a reality to the general consciousness’. Overlanders were producing knowledges about ways to move through remote areas and make them real to urban settlers, as well as ways for settlers to interact with the land and its peoples, and to communicate life through technology. Eventually motorised transport would be utilised to the same ends, and the extension of the roads and highway network around the continent produced a complete and consistent colonial territory.

While we should not make hasty remarks about causal relationships and connections between outcome and intent, in harking back to this period the IPWR draws out interesting parallels between the cultural work that travel has performed and continues to perform. Furthermore, the broadcasting of Mike Hall’s death through the IPWR’s tracking system, tragic as it is, is demonstrative of some new relationships between life, death, and technological representations of the world that are emerging as we become increasingly immersed in – and represented by – technology.

Followers of the IPWR (and other events of its ilk) are often referred to as ‘dot-watchers’. With participants spread out over thousands of kilometres, the massive 5500km race is virtually impossible to spectate or televise, and also to adjudicate. The solution, race organisers have found, is to equip entrants with tracking devices that continuously emit data about the rider’s location and speed. This is primarily used to ensure that riders stick to the course and do not cheat, but is also the main way that fans can follow the event – with many checking in on the race regularly throughout its course, or, like me, multiple times through the course of the day.

While augmented-reality games like Pokémon Go and its less popular predecessor Ingress create unreal meanings for real places, the deepening surveillance apparatus of contemporary society imbues unreal figures – representations of people – with real, living, breathing, shitting, dying consequences. Parents are now routinely following their children home from school and partners watch each other’s journeys home from work via the location sharing function of Google Maps. At the same time, social media websites like strava allow athletes to map their runs and bicycle rides to compete with one another.

True, some have suggested strava should be used to police speeding cyclists, and it could be said these applications make us all increasingly comfortable with surveillance and securitisation – but in the greater scheme of things, I think these location sharing practices are relatively harmless. They serve as peace of mind and as training tools, though problems can arise when the technology does not match the real world, as GPS data is not always completely accurate.

Location sharing is a recent addition to a suite of social technologies that together build an experience known as virtual co-presence – the experience of sharing virtual space and being almost constantly accessible and able to make comment on actions and affects shared via social media, text messaging and, latterly, location sharing. We have become exceedingly comfortable with virtual co-presence, and Hall’s death is indicative of what will likely be an increasingly common phenomenon – tragedy playing out and being witnessed in real time in a virtual arena.

Similarly to how the overlanders, with their travel and documentary practices, rendered the vastness of the Australian continent knowable to western epistemologies, current practices of allowing ourselves to be tracked – either publically through events like the Indian Pacific Wheel Race, or privately, by family members and loved ones – draws us deeper into digital realities and creates new understandings of space. The full consequences of this phenomenon will continue to unfold, but for now we must remain mindful that these spaces are as uneven and fallible as the realities and technologies that inform them.

Image: ‘Line up of competitors at Goulburn, Goulburn to Sydney, Dunlop Road Race, c. 1930s’ / State Library of Victoria

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Nikolajs Ozoliņš is a PhD student from Wollongong, NSW, who likes reading books, riding bicycles, and taking long walks off short piers.

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  1. There is currently an exhibition about cycling at the National Museum in Canberra which is worth a look, although I don’t recall that it looked at this sort of technology, or, indeed, the sometimes deadly interface between car and cyclist.

  2. Thanks for this interesting article about how we learn to imagine landscapes and dwell in them – virtually and physically. Birtles’ readers sometimes had to wait months for the next newspaper story to hear what had happened to him. Now we can feel part of a ‘community’ who follows those cyclists minute by minute. New ways to relate to each other and landscapes?

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