America Online A Gone Trail

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Artists' Statement:

Throughout history, travel has been a long, arduous, and physically taxing experience. However, technical developments in the 20th century have spawned new forms of travel that have collapsed vast distances and hastened the feeling of the "global village".

Google Maps and by extension, the Internet, are changing the traditional landscape of travel. We now have a virtual map of the world as detailed as the world itself and today, anyone with access to a computer and the Internet can "travel" almost anywhere by pressing a few keys on a keyboard. The armchair traveler can explore the world without ever leaving home. With Google street view we are on the side of the street by that café, the distance from point A to point B stops being an abstract geometric proposition and can be viewed before departure through its many landmarks. With such a dense mediation, those who could never travel to certain places can now use Google street view to see what downtown looks like in Stockholm. In a sense the spatiality of reality has been mapped and collapsed further. Is travel as we know it becoming obsolete?

We analogize our movement to that of a wagon and maintain a historical reference to the Oregon Trail for two reasons. First of all, it provides a reference for the current state of space, distance, and travel. Once travel was a difficult ordeal and took a lot of time, much was at risk. The difference is thus emphasized in this way between then and now. Furthermore, most of us know the Oregon Trail because of the game of it. As such, the event as a mediation and not as a historical event is how most of us have become aware of it.

The fact that the game was originally created to teach children history in 1971 can also help us to situate the context of our own trip in relation to its media genealogy and historical reference. Creating a game, just as writing history, involves decisions about who and what can count as legitimate beings. This "educational" game thus comes to serve an ideological purpose by helping to construct a master narrative through the guise of light entertainment. But who is excluded from this game and this history? A mediation is necessarily incomplete and the fact that "streetview" is tied to the streets means that we get fuller descriptions of areas with higher road density. As it always has been, taking a road trip does not represent the space traversed very well nor its people, it leaves out many important features both physically and culturally of that space.

This historical reference has thus returned to us also through a representation and a simulacrum of itself just as we perform our trip using only simulacra to demonstrate the collapse of distances and the several strata of space. We are traversing web space through the representation of real space.Normally, a user of Google Maps interested in arriving at Oregon would simply click on Oregon and zoom there in a matter of seconds. However, we used Google Maps in a way that it is never used (travelling for 7 hrs) in order to instill the tedium of real-life travel back into the virtual realm, which has become characterized by instant gratification (ie. you click and you are there). This juxtaposition allowed us to emphasize the difference between travel in the 1800s and virtual travel today.

We also used a webcam to broadcast our performance online to allow anyone to join in on the journey. This created another form of mediation (mediation between us and our viewers) and allowed us to return our physical performance to the virtual realm.

We made a soundscape because it represents another form of mediation and simulation of the physical world. Most of the sounds that we used were captured by other people, uploaded to freesound.org, and then appropriated by us for use in our project. Just like a Google Maps image, the sounds are a kind of "virtualization" ---a record of the physical world captured by technologies of reproduction (cameras, microphones).

Google Maps, by mapping the world, quite literally represents the post-modern idea that everything has been explored and the frontier no longer exists. In our journey, everywhere we went had already been visited by the Google Car which took the images for Google Maps. In the 1800s the frontier was still largely unexplored. However, the images on Google Maps reveal that a lot has changed within the last few centuries. Today, the former frontier has become covered by a dense network of modern roads, highways, and towns.

Nevertheless this map is incomplete, however much it attempts to give us an impression of completion. On our voyage, coverage for I-70 W stopped and we had to turn back and take an alternate route. In addition, we only see people in cities, highways being populated instead by their extension: cars. The world we see is a strange version of reality through the eyes of a car, just as flawed as any other subject position.  
What can be made of the fact that there is only one company that is known for doing this and which has virtually monopolized this field of a visual representation of the road system from the point of view of a car? Can Google be placed in the position of the USA in the 1800s, that is, a growing monolith seeking to expand its sphere of influence through constant expansion which it sees as a positive, civilizing, and inevitable destiny? It is interesting that of the large corporate monoliths, Google is often seen as the "nice guy" with their slogan of "do no evil" even if they are taking pictures of us all the time and archiving all of our email data and search information. In the hands of any other company, this would feel more ominous and yet what makes Google different? Just as we have American exceptionalism, can we say there is a sort of Googlian exceptionalism that allows it to act and function as a for profit corporation while somehow not appearing as bad. After all, the recent trouble that Google has had with China has been painted in a light where Google seems like the little guy getting pushed over by the big Communist censors. They are the defenders of "freedom of speech." What are the ideological implications of this as Google ever expands into our own representations with their suggestion that you archive your emails rather than delete and with all of their apps for cloud computing? Use Google with abandon and they will have an archive of your correspondences, the papers you've written, slide presentations, late night searches, directions you've looked for, et cetera. Instead of colonizing land, they want to colonize storage space by inviting users to store all their information on their servers instead of your local disk.

Documentation:

Our Website: http://agonetrail.net/

Images: http://agonetrail.tumblr.com/

Twitter: http://twitter.com/agonetrail

YouTube Channel: http://www.youtube.com/agonetrail

Max Patch: download (it's fat, 646MB)

Videos:

Building the Wagon
Sample #1
Sample #2
Sample #3

Press:

http://blogdailyherald.com/2010/05/03/pick-up-some-supplies-at-the-country-store/

http://www.motherboard.tv/2010/5/3/the-oregon-trail-google-streetview-version--2

A Preemptive Critique?

Bigelow, Bill. "On the Road to Cultural Bias: A Critique of The Oregon Trail CD-ROM." Language Arts 74.2 (Feb. 1997): 84-93.

Gender Roles in "The Oregon Trail" Computer Game

WHAT IS SO DESTINED ABOUT MANIFEST DESTINY? WHAT IT SO DETERMINISTIC ABOUT TECHNOLOGICAL DETERMINISM?
CRITIQUE OF "THE OREGON TRAIL" COMPUTER GAME

Along The Trail: What does the player encounter along the way?

  • How does the player perceive his progress along the way? Once the journey begins, the screen pans out to an enlarged map of the territory the player passes as his wagon covers it in a moving red line, connecting by dots to mark key resting spots such as river crossings, trading posts, and large hills or mountains. The player must make such key decisions as whether to ford or caulk the wagon across turbulent waters based on their depth and current, whether to hunt when meat is running low, and if so, whether to waste bullets on hard targets like birds or to wait for the occasional lumbering bear, whether to rest for a given number of days when Tommy has a cold or not, and whether to search abandoned wagons along the way or not. Here again, while many of these scenarios are entirely valid and harmless, others are not [1]. For instance, throughout the trail one often approaches "unfamiliar Indians" and is presented with three very specific choices in how to deal with their presence: "approach them," "be suspicious of them," or "continue at a distance" [1]. The game's guidebook is careful not to portray Native Americans as the frontierman's enemies, but this caution is "selfish and goal-driven: emigrants should care about indigenous people only insofar as they need to avoid 'misunderstanding' and incurring the wrath of potentially hostile natives" [2]. For example, the guidebook warns against approaching Native Americans for fear that such encounters would lead to undesirable misunderstandings and also cautions the player not to over hunt the game in any one area, as "few things will incur the wrath of the Indian peoples more than an overstayed welcome accompanied by the egregious waste of the natural resources upon which they depend" [1].
  • As a result, the student is forced to identify only with white settlers and to understand themselves as the norm to the exclusion of other groups. Furthermore, the choices presented in dealing with Native Americans imply that by leaving them alone, neither party is hurt and the white settler can continue guilt-free on his journey. Just as in the case of the cheery pop-up of the young black girl who advises the party to move on, race is presented as a non-factor, when in reality, it mattered very much [2]. 
  • Another excuse to hide from genocide and global dispossession of non-Euroamerican peoples was the myth of expansion ridding the world of tyranny and despotism.  It made it quite easy to think of expansion in the context of spreading freedom and civilization to the rest of the world that lived under despots and tyrants, spreading culture and philosophy, knowledge and science, to the unlearned masses -- bettering the world with Euroamerican genius and technology.  The march of conquest was not genocide, slavery, and dispossession;  it was the Peace Corps of the 19th Century.

Sources:

The Center for World Indigenous Studies

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