That Saturday morning, we decided to go on a trail ride way beyond our normal route. We knew we’d need to hike part of the way, since the trails weren’t maintained or even developed that far out. So we made sure to wear our low-rise boots.
What began as a bicycle trail, eventually turned into a hiking path, and then deteriorated to no path at all. We went by foot for a long distance on a narrow trail that seemed like a path only travelled by mountain goats. Looking for more level ground, we climbed to the top of the ridge. Looking over we stopped in our tracks.
Hundreds of feet below was a compound nestled into the valley, surrounded by mountains, with no roads or trails in or out.
“What do you suppose that is?” I asked, without looking to see my wife’s expression.
“Let’s see if it has a location pin in Google Maps,” she said, pulling out her iPhone.
We still called them iPhones, but the new generation was just calling them pocket computers. They were the technology that came after smart phones. Actually, you could still use them for phone calls, but the name was changed after people began using email and text more than voice calls. Since the telephone capability was only one function of hundreds it seemed odd to call them phones anyway. It would be like calling a Swiss Army Knife a toothpick. Apple still dominated the hardware market, but with Linux being adopted world-wide as the scalable OS standard, most devices were similar in function.
“Google Maps shows nothing but trees in that valley,” she said, shaking her head. “Look.” She showed me her screen.
“Wow. A valid cloak find!” I was thrilled. A “cloak find” was when you’d find something that was erased from Google Maps. We’d been days without finding anything in our area.
In 2015, Google, MapQuest, Bing, and other online mapping services began allowing government agencies, military, farming operations, factories, businesses, and individuals to buy their way out of the maps. These locations would not just be blocked out or blurred, but made completely invisible using a sophisticated algorithm that became publicly available in Adobe CS6. The software could mimic the surrounding area to make objects disappear without a trace.
In addition to selling this cloaking service to the wealthy, the online mapping providers started selling ad space. Areas of terrain that repeated with relatively little variation were considered to be a waste of server space — and also a potential source of valuable ad revenue. The ads quickly flourished. One could purchase static ad space of varying sizes (essentially owning that virtual real estate), or share it in time-parcels (5 seconds being the smallest). So, as soon as you’d leave the coastline, or venture into the Canadian wilderness, you’d begin seeing ads. The shared time-parcels would rotate from one ad to the next like a tiny slideshow.
Even on street view, when looking at large buildings, ads would show up. Actual billboards and other outside advertising was replaced with Google AdSense for Maps advertisements.
There were paid versions of the mapping services to view the world without advertising. However, this was expensive. So, most people put up with the advertising. Even with the paid versions, you wouldn’t see the cloaked content.
So, online maps had become less reliable. Some of us felt that maps should remain free and open to the public. So, the Open Mapping Project was created by volunteers. It was like Wikipedia for maps, with thousands of contributors world-wide. It turned out to be one of the best sources of mapping information available, and the high resolution on-location photos were something not available with the commercial mapping services.
In recent years, my wife and I began submitting content to the Open Mapping Project from our wilderness bicycle rides. There was a principle among activists of zero-net-loss activism. The idea is that there’s a lot we can do to make a better world without expending any extra time, energy, or money. You’re already out on a bicycle ride. You’re already taking photos. Simply upload the geotagged photos and you’re contributing to something without having gone out of your way to do it. A lot of bicyclists would pull trailers for recycling and trash — keeping their commute route clean. This was another example of how, without going out of your way, just taking care of the world within arm’s reach we could all collectively clean the world.
“Do you have a signal?” My wife asked, while changing out lenses on her DSLR camera.
“Yep. My pocket computer has it’s hotspot enabled, and the signal is good. Go ahead.”
She began uploading her photos. The Open Mapping Project was setup to work effortlessly with the cameras in mobile computers or DSLR cameras using an EyeFi device (WiFi enabled SD card). This way, people could upload photos in real-time.
We started on our way back. Walking at first, and then on our bicycles again. As we reached the bicycle tunnel under the railroad tracks, we could hear a helicopter approaching just as we entered the tunnel. We stopped inside the tunnel and looked out to see a blue helicopter with white accents. On the tail were large letters DI. We used out binoculars to get a closer look. Droxtile Industries was written on the side of the helicopter. Rather than continuing on its path, it dropped vertically just beyond the ridge where we’d been.
We smiled, and without saying a word, got back on our bikes. We’d discovered the unknown home base of the Droxtile Industries helicopter. I couldn’t wait to tell Kurt.
We needed to get home by dark so we could get plenty of sleep for our ride the next day. Steph had arranged for us to meet Aiyana — one of the elders in the holistic wellness community. Aiyana lived in the hill country east of the city, so the ride would take a while. Because we were going for our first training session, we wanted as much daylight as possible.
# # #