Map Quests: Political, Physical and Digital

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
The only truly accurate map of the world would be a map the size of the world. So if you want to make a map useful, something that you can hold in your hands, you have to start making choices. You have to choose what information you’re interested in and what you’re throwing out. These choices influence how the person reading the map views the world. But a map’s influence doesn’t end there. Maps can actually shape the place they’re trying to represent. And that’s when things get weird. I love a good map and today we have three short stories about how maps have changed the real world in big and small ways.

Roman Mars:
Okay, so Kurt Kohlstedt is in the studio with me and he also loves maps. And you’ve written a ton of articles about maps and map projections. And even- you did an article about the design of pins on maps.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Oh, yes.

Roman Mars:
So the love is deep.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
It’s real.

Roman Mars:
So we’re going to talk about actually one of your favorite geographical oddities and that’s exclaves and enclaves. And these are bits of land cut off from their home countries in various cool ways.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah. And they take a lot of forms and it gets complicated pretty fast. So I just wanted to start with something simple that listeners out there might recognize. When you look at a map of the United States, there’s this little bump up in the middle and it’s called the Northwest Angle and it sticks up from Minnesota into Canada.

Roman Mars:
Right. Okay. I know that one. That’s basically how non-Minnesotans know where Minnesota is and tells it from the other states up there. It sort of breaks up this clean straight Canadian border running along the Western US and then when it hits the Great Lakes, you get this bump.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Exactly. So like on the left it’s all kind of a straight line and on the right, it starts getting zig-zaggy. It has a really kind of neat origin story, but I’m not going to go there today. Suffice it to say cartographical errors were made. And for me, growing up in Minnesota, I actually always tended to picture this notch as a piece of land, like a solid, because it’s part of the shape of the map. But it’s actually not, or at least not entirely. The Southern portion of the angle is water, and above that, there is a patch of land and that’s what’s known as a ‘practical exclave.’

Roman Mars:
A practical exclave. So I know the basics of exclaves and enclaves. These are areas of land that are isolated or separated in some way from the rest of the country. But what does a practical exclave mean, like in this case?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Basically the land in the angle is surrounded by Canadian land on most sides, but below it has this area of American territorial water, which is basically a really big lake. So practically speaking, someone who wants to go directly there without leaving the US, they could do it by boat. But on land, they’d actually have to drive through Canada to get back into this slice of America, which isn’t impossible, it’s just impractical.

Roman Mars:
Right. Okay. That makes sense. This actually reminds me of Point Roberts, which we actually sent Sharif to, to do a little story a while ago where he went to the post office that people go to on Point Roberts. That’s pretty cool.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah. And it’s totally in that same category of exclave as Point Roberts, though in the details, they’re really different. The angle is huge. It’s much bigger. It’s relatively remote and it’s really sparsely populated by comparison. It only has around a hundred permanent residents or so. And the crossing stations are correspondingly pretty minimalist.

Roman Mars:
So what does it take to cross the border at the Northwest Angle?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
For a long time you had these little shack-like buildings called ‘Outlying Area Reporting Stations’ or ‘OARS,’ and you had to do a video call with a border agent.

Roman Mars:
You Skype.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
You’re right, you basically Skype into the border patrol. They kind of look you once over. You show them your passport and you’re on your way. I mean it just wouldn’t be practical to staff these things.

Roman Mars:
That’s ridiculous.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah. Yeah. And then I’ve been reading about this because I haven’t been up there in a while and apparently over the last few years they’ve been working on streamlining things with a mobile app called Roam, spelled R-O-A-M. So a way that you can check in without really going through all these hoops.

Roman Mars:
That’s so cool. So yeah, you have Point Roberts, you have the Northwest Angle. You know these are fairly regional examples, like people that live there interact with them, but most people don’t interact with them. Are there ones that have bigger impacts on the world in general?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah, I mean there’s ones that people never really think about. A really good example is the whole state of Alaska.

Roman Mars:
Okay, of course.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
So Alaska is considered to be what’s called a semi-exclave and it’s actually the largest of its kind in the world. It’s got this semi-modifier because even though it doesn’t border the lower 48 it does have this really long stretch of international coastline, so it really has direct access to international waters.

Roman Mars:
Right, right. Okay. So those are exclaves. I think those are pretty easy to understand. So describe what enclaves are because those can be pretty strange.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
They really can. I should note here that there are some nuances to all this and a lot of complexity, like some enclaves are also exclaves. But in the simplest and most general terms, enclaves are countries or parts of countries that are entirely contained within another country’s territory. So they’re totally surrounded.

Roman Mars:
So Northwest Angle and Point Roberts and Alaska, they don’t count because they aren’t cut off completely from the US. You can still get to these places by boat, for example.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah, exactly, whereas enclaves are fully enclosed. So San Marino in Europe is a classic example. It’s this relatively small country and it’s completely enclaved on all sides by Italy.

Roman Mars:
Maybe it’s because the US is so isolated and on its own and surrounded by water that, that feels weird to me, to be enclosed in another country. I mean maybe if you’re like the Czech Republic, you’re surrounded by other countries-

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah, or like Luxembourg or something. It might not be one country, but it’s still pretty small.

Roman Mars:
But there’s still something kind of special about being a country completely inside one other country.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah, yeah. You’re kind of dependent on them in certain curious ways. And that’s sort of just the first level of this, too. These things get even more complex and even more small in a lot of cases. For example, with counter-enclaves, which are an enclave inside of another enclave or more specifically like a piece of the Netherlands, inside a piece of Belgium that is itself in the Netherlands.

Roman Mars:
So they’re like second-order enclaves or like enclaves in enclaves.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yes!

Roman Mars:
Enclaves all the way down.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
All the way down. And as crazy as those are, it doesn’t stop there. Consider counter-counter enclaves, like a piece of India inside a piece of Bangladesh, inside a piece of India, inside of Bangladesh. And in fact that triple-enclave example is the only known third-order enclave in world history.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. Well, that makes sense that would be the only one. I mean it’s so absurd.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah.

Roman Mars:
I mean it’s pretty hard to picture. So how does that even work in the real world?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
So basically for a long time, there were villages within villages and at the middle of it all was this two-acre parcel that was owned by a Bangladeshi farmer who lived in the surrounding enclave. He would just wake up in the morning and cross into India to farm his tiny patch of land in the middle of this zone. Then he would cross back into Bangladesh each night. In 2015, India and Bangladesh finally agreed to this really big cross border land swap to essentially tidy up all these enclaves within enclaves. Essentially they ended up handing over dozens of enclaves to each other, totaling thousands of acres.

Roman Mars:
Did that mean that there were Indians now living in Bangladesh and vice versa?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
I mean, yes, in some cases. I actually thought they handled it pretty well and pragmatically. They basically offered residents of these former enclaves a choice. They could either stay where they were and basically be in a different country than they had been before, or they could move “back across the border” to their official country of citizenship. It all kind of reminds me this isn’t quite technically an enclave or an exclave thing, but once you start thinking in these terms, there are some other interesting geographical mind benders out there. So I’ve got one more for you and as far as I know, this place has no official name, so I’ve just been calling it ‘Inception Island.’ It’s a pretty normal Island located in Canada, but apparently as far as I can tell, it’s also the world’s largest known island in a lake, on an island, in a lake, on an Island.

Roman Mars:
It’s like ‘Inception,’ like there’s a dream within a dream, within a dream kind of thing.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Exactly.

Roman Mars:
That’s why you call it Inception. I get it.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
It kind of blows my mind in the same way too, right? Like I have to do some like mental accounting to keep track of the what within what as you go along.

Inception Clip:
“Now in a dream, our mind continuously does this. We create and perceive our world simultaneously and our mind does this so well that we don’t even know what’s happening.”

Roman Mars:
Does the top keep spinning? Who knows?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Who knows?

Roman Mars:
Who knows. And so, of course, we have pictures of these all on the website.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Oh yeah, of course.

Roman Mars:
Cool. That’s awesome. That’s at 99pi.org Thank you, Kurt.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah, anytime Roman.

——————————————

Roman Mars:
Up next is Joe Rosenberg.

Joe Rosenberg:
Okay, so Roman, the best way to get into this story I think is with kind of like a mental exercise. Are you game?

Roman Mars:
I’m definitely game.

Joe Rosenberg:
All right. What I want you to do is imagine that you are taking a stroll through the British countryside.

Roman Mars:
Okay, does it matter where in the British countryside?

Joe Rosenberg:
Actually no, it actually doesn’t matter. That’s kind of the point. It could be anywhere on the island of Great Britain.

Roman Mars:
Okay, so let’s ramble through the Lake District. I like a good fell. I could ramble on a fell.

Joe Rosenberg:
Excellent choice. Excellent word use.

Roman Mars:
Will there be hedges around there.

Joe Rosenberg:
Definitely, definitely. Throw in a good hedge. Throw in some sheep.

Roman Mars:
I’m there in my mind. I’m rambling. It’s a beautiful place.

Joe Rosenberg:
I’m glad you’re enjoying yourself. But here’s the thing, on this hypothetical ramble of yours, no matter where you chose to go, so long as you are somewhere on the island of Great Britain, after a while I can almost guarantee you will come across an object that looks like this. Here, let me show you a photo.

Roman Mars:
It’s like an obelisk. It looks a little bit like a fatter squatter Washington Monument without a pyramid on top, which is like kind of a tapered concrete pillar. I can’t tell from the perspective how tall it is, though.

Joe Rosenberg:
Maybe like four feet high.

Roman Mars:
Okay. Yeah. So in the middle of the countryside, it’s very austere. It looks like a ruin kind of. It has a little vibe of something that has been left behind, but it’s cool looking. It’s evocative.

Joe Rosenberg:
Yeah. Yeah. I mean for me it’s almost like a gray concrete version of the monolith from 2001. It’s just kind of there. And the thing is, is that these pillars are actually all over the place. No matter where you are, if you head out a few miles in any direction, you will keep stumbling upon these things.

Roman Mars:
And they all basically look like this?

Joe Rosenberg:
Yeah, they’re all identical, exact same shape, exact same measurements. It almost never varies. This one you’re looking at is in Wales. Let me show you a few more. This is one that’s actually in an island called St Kilda. It’s in the Outer Hebrides, super remote. There’s like abandoned settlements there. All there is, is a military base out there. But still, they have these pillars. There really are everywhere. Like for example, not just in these remote, craggy places. This one’s just in a field, in a farm field. We’ve got one here that’s just in a kind of suburban backyard.

Roman Mars:
So what are they and why are they everywhere?

Joe Rosenberg:
So the actual technical term for these things are ‘triangulation stations.’ But in Britain, everyone just calls them ‘trig points’ or ‘trig pillars.’ And these trig pillars are the remnants of a centuries-long effort to do something that we today kind of take for granted, which was to make a topographical survey of an entire country.

Roman Mars:
And so a topographical survey of the entire country. I kind of know what you mean, but what do you mean?

Joe Rosenberg:
Right, yeah, yeah. You’re like, “Oh yeah, sure. The surveys, they’re doing the thing.”

Roman Mars:
They have those things-

Joe Rosenberg:
And there’s topo maps and it’s all taken care of. The kind of broader contextual answers at least in Europe, as you get into the age of exploration and colonization, but also the age of nation-states with standing armies, there is an increased need for really spatially, accurate maps.

Roman Mars:
And this is because navigation and military actions and that sort of thing? You need to be more precise than you did before, is that the deal?

Joe Rosenberg:
Yeah, exactly. I mean if you’re going to aim in artillery piece, you really need to know-

Roman Mars:
Know what you’re going to hit.

Joe Rosenberg:
… what you’re going to hit, the curvature of the earth, things like this. Right. But the first top graphically accurate survey maps were only certain small areas, like maybe a coastline or a town. And it turned out that most of these maps weren’t even that accurate because anytime they tried to line them up side by side they were never in agreement. Like their longitude and latitudes would never sync up and it was hard to say which map was right or whether perhaps even all the maps were just filled with errors. There were no national maps. No national grid systems. Which is to say there’s no set of fixed reference points for all lower-order maps to use. And this was really frustrating. Just imagine for a moment not having a consistent map of the country where you lived.

Roman Mars:
Right. Like every time you saw a big map in a classroom, the coasts would be all different and Florida would look crazy every time and that sort of thing. Everything would be different.

Joe Rosenberg:
Yeah. Because nobody really knew and I don’t know about you but if that were ever taken away, I would feel its absence. And so in Europe, increasingly as you get into the 18th century especially, there is a desire for precisely that. A true God’s eye view of the land that would feel like you’re just floating many miles above the earth and looking down at what is actually.

Roman Mars:
And this was kind of a new idea to be really accurate in this way.

Joe Rosenberg:
Yeah, because Europe in the middle ages, you didn’t need to know exactly how far away Bruges was. It was a three days ride, and partway to the left. Right? And your field, it wasn’t that it was 255 yards long versus 257 yards long, it just ended where the copse of trees was, right?

Roman Mars:
Right.

Joe Rosenberg:
It’s still the way we use subway maps today, which is something that helps you with practice. But now we’re getting into this era where there is a kind of practical need, but also you have this enlightenment idea that there is some kind of fixed, objective reality out there that we have been denied access to, up until now. We need to find out everything we can about it and master it somehow as part of our grand enlightenment project. And so in the 1700s, you begin to see more and more countries start to do national surveys and make the first spatially accurate national maps whose kind of official coordinates keep all the other maps in agreement. So by fits and starts in the 1780s and then officially in 1791, Britain is finally like, “Hmm, we should also probably know where everything is.” And they said, “You know, we want a national map too. Let’s do it.”

Roman Mars:
Great. Okay. So how do you go about making a national map?

Joe Rosenberg:
Where do you even start, right? When you don’t know where anything is and you’re not sure about anything’s location or the distance between things, what’s your first reference point? How do you decide where there is? And the answer is trig pillars. And this is what they did. They built two triangulation stations about 12 miles apart, kind of where Heathrow Airport is now. Then they used, just so they think, “I’ll get the measurement exactly right,” they used a series of glass tubes. I think each glass tube was 12 feet long and they just kept placing them end on end over the course of many, many months, until they finally could add them all up and say, “Okay, this is the distance between these two first triangulation stations.” Those two triangulation stations were within sight of the Greenwich Observatory. And the Greenwich Observatory, they were pretty sure they knew where the Greenwich Observatory was because it had all these telescopes with which to make celestial measurements. So the Greenwich Observatory’s longitude and latitude, they were the most confident in.

Roman Mars:
Right, right.

Joe Rosenberg:
All we need to do now is measure the angle between these two stations and the Greenwich Observatory and now we have the location and distance between all three of these objects. Once they had that, then they were off to the races because now you don’t need to physically measure, lay out rulers or glass rods or anything anymore. All you need to do is place a new triangulation, a third triangulation station, within sight of the first two. Measure the angles again and then you can just do all the math from the angles and you get to know the exact location of the third triangulation station. And then you can place a fourth a little further away. Again, as long as it’s within sight of two, get a fourth station, a fifth, right? And then you just daisy chain your way across the entire landmass.

Roman Mars:
Wow. And in this case, you mean Great Britain and that’s why those trig points are everywhere.

Joe Rosenberg:
For the entire island of Great Britain. Yes, with triangulation stations at every point.

Roman Mars:
Wow. How long did this take?

Joe Rosenberg:
The primary triangulation was finally completed in 1853, so it took 62 years. In fact, in 1935 they did a re-triangulation and this time it was much faster, it only took 30 years. And so all the trig pillars you see dotted throughout the countryside, I have to fess up are actually from the re-triangulation.

Roman Mars:
These are the second ones from 1935.

Joe Rosenberg:
Yeah. And then the reason that they installed these new ones is the original ones were just holes in the ground. And there’s actually hilarious descriptions of where you could find them because they’d be like, “Oh, ask the farmer who lives at the end of the lane, and he’ll tell you.” You know what I mean? And those were in the official descriptions of where the trig points were. And they’re like, “This isn’t good enough. We need to make better trig points, more trig points.” And the reason they are all the exact same shape is because they are literally mounts for the surveying equipment.

Roman Mars:
Oh, okay. That makes sense. So in the end, for the full survey, how many trig points did they have to build?

Joe Rosenberg:
They built about 6,500 and today there are still about 6,200.

Roman Mars:
Oh, wow.

Joe Rosenberg:
Yeah.

Roman Mars:
That’s pretty good.

Joe Rosenberg:
And believe it or not, there is one guy who has visited every single one.

Roman Mars:
Of course.

Rob Woodall:
“It happened bit by bit, really.”

Joe Rosenberg:
So this is the guy, his name is Rob Woodall. He is 59. He works for a water and waste authority in East Anglia and he honestly cannot tell you what compelled him to do this.

Rob Woodall:
“You never set out to bag 6,000 trig pillars, but yeah, just gradually you get kind of sucked in.”

Joe Rosenberg:
I mean Rob likes the outdoors and he likes a good challenge, clearly. But when I asked him if there was some kind of philosophical reward in it for him, something to do with perhaps seeing all of Britain, he was like, “No.”

Rob Woodall:
“Yeah, intense discovery of stuff? I don’t know… I’m not that kind of guy, really. I’m not. I don’t have much poetry in my soul, I’m afraid.”

Roman Mars:
No poetry in his soul, poor guy.

Joe Rosenberg:
I think he’s being a little self-deprecating.

Roman Mars:
I think for sure. Clearly, if he did this, he does, even though he can’t articulate it in that sense. What a remarkable human. I really like him.

Joe Rosenberg:
Right, and in that sense, he’s not alone. He is part of a small but flourishing community of people called ‘trig baggers,’ who like to visit and catalog trig points. But so far, Rob is the only one to visit every single one. He says one guy was neck and neck with him for a while but retired at 5,000.

Rob Woodall:
“For somebody else that had done 4,000 and then, unfortunately, I think he had a road accident so he gave up a bit after 4,000. There’s a lady called Carol Engel that has done I think something like 5,300. I mean she’s about 10 years behind me but she’s very, very keen.”

Joe Rosenberg:
You know, I think for most of the trig baggers, the core poetic motivation is the same poetic motivation as anyone who decides they want to climb a mountain.

Roman Mars:
Just because it’s there.

Joe Rosenberg:
Precisely because it’s there. Although, in this case, you might say there is a lot of there, there. Rob says it took him close to 12 years to visit them all.

Rob Woodall:
“I got to kind of 5,000 of them relatively quickly, really. But the last 1,000 or so were really hard.”

Roman Mars:
What makes the last thousand so hard.

Joe Rosenberg:
Well, part of it is that some of them are just in really remote places.

Roman Mars:
That makes sense.

Joe Rosenberg:
There are some that are just on these sea cliff islands with no real place to land. So it’s almost like a mini-expedition just to get to them. A lot of them are also in these overgrown areas or places left to the elements in one way or another and Rob said a lot of trig pillars have started to kind of crumble away. There was one that was on the edge of a sea cliff apparently that a few years back was about to tumble into the sea.

Rob Woodall:
“And yeah, so somebody noticed it had fallen over and then the next people went expecting to find it down at the bottom of the cliff. The farmer had actually managed to rescue it and pulled it back. You know, winched it back from the cliff and re-erected it a little way back and that was really nice.”

Roman Mars:
But if the farmer put it back up, did he put it on the exact same point? I mean does it still serve as a trig point if you move it to another place?

Joe Rosenberg:
No, he had to move obviously the point where it was, was now just in midair, and so we had to move it. So it no longer is a functioning trig point. And there is a further irony which is that all of this wear and tear can also make certain trig points somewhat paradoxically hard to find.

Rob Woodall:
“Sometimes they just disappear completely and sometimes they actually reappear somewhere completely unexpected. There’s one that actually turned up in Scotland that I’ve not seen yet. Yeah, they do come back sometimes.”

Roman Mars:
I don’t even know what that means.

Joe Rosenberg:
It just means that they will disappear from their known location and then reappear in a new location and exactly what hands they pass through in between, no one knows. Rob actually says that at one point another trig pillar showed up on eBay and one of the UK trig baggers had to intervene to make sure it wasn’t sold overseas. Although most trig points, if they are interfered with, are interacted with and kind of more innocent ways. As more and more people have learned about them in recent years, more and more are getting painted. Let me show you a few. This is an English Rose. It’s kind of been stenciled on, a red English Rose. This is a-

Roman Mars:
Welsh Dragon.

Joe Rosenberg:
Welsh Dragon. Very good. So obviously in Wales, but my favorite has to be the minions.

Roman Mars:
It’s a straight-up minion.

Joe Rosenberg:
It’s a straight-up minion but the proportions are very good.

Roman Mars:
Very good.

Joe Rosenberg:
Someone realizes these things are minions.

Roman Mars:
They nailed it.

Joe Rosenberg:
They nailed it. So it really is … I find it really quite charming. But the thing that Rob told me that really got me thinking is that the trig pillars are only the tip of a much larger surveying infrastructure that is actually all around us. Because those just provided the starting points for any given map. For all the lower order measurements, like the streets and the hills and the rivers and the slopes, surveyors used much, much smaller markings, really just these little notches made in the landscape. It’s sometimes with a small plaque called a ‘benchmark,’ but sometimes it was like a notch, just called a ‘cut mark.’

Rob Woodall:
“If you keep your eyes out, you tend to see it in the UK, anyway. You tend to see them. There’s huge numbers of them. There’s probably about a million of them put in, I would think.”

Roman Mars:
There’s a million of these benchmarks just around the landscape. Wow.

Joe Rosenberg:
That was my reaction as well.

Rob Woodall:
“I’ve got one about 200 meters away from my house actually. Just chiseled into, I think it’s number 14, our estate.”

Joe Rosenberg:
“That’s incredible. And so someone like your neighbor down the street, do you know whether they know that, that mark is on their house?”

Rob Woodall:
“I’ve never thought of mentioning it, actually. They probably don’t. Might be fun to mention sometime. Bit of a strange thing to ask, really.”

Joe Rosenberg:
I guess the point is that these thousands of trig pillars and however many benchmarks and millions of cut marks are just kind of secretly all around us.

Roman Mars:
Oh, that’s so cool.

Joe Rosenberg:
Yeah. And they’re not just in Britain. Lots of countries have some form of physical surveying infrastructure in place. India has its own kind of triangulation stations. So does Japan and the US. The only reason we’re not as familiar with them is they’re not as dramatic looking. They’re more like cut marks. They’re just like little cairns or poles or plaques in the ground. They are everywhere. And it’s strange to think that there is this kind of invisible network of objects all around us that actually is responsible for giving us a way to look at ourselves from outside ourselves.

Roman Mars:
That’s kind of amazing. It gives us so much, these little things. That’s awesome. Well, thanks Joe.

Joe Rosenberg:
Roman, thank you so much.

——————————————

Roman Mars:
Here is Vivian Le.

Vivian Le:
Roman, have you ever heard of a town called Occoquan?

Roman Mars:
Say it again.

Vivian Le:
Have you ever heard of a town called Occoquan?

Roman Mars:
No, just say the town name again.

Vivian Le:
Okay. Occoquan.

Roman Mars:
Nope. Never heard of it.

Vivian Le:
Okay. So Occoquan is this beautiful little town in Virginia and it’s very old and it’s right on the water. It looks like pretty much the perfect setting for a CW drama about a prestigious East Coast boarding school.

Roman Mars:
Perfect.

Lauren Jacobs:
“So it’s quaint and vintage and kind of playing up on the history and the country style, but also very upscale.”

Roman Mars:
So who is that?

Vivian Le:
So that is Lauren Jacobs. She’s an artist and a teacher based in Northern Virginia. So in 2015, Lauren won a juried prize, meaning she’d get to exhibit and sell her work at a gallery in Occoquan called “The Artists’ Undertaking.”

Lauren Jacobs:
“The Artists’ Undertaking Gallery” is called that because it used to be the Undertaker’s house.

Roman Mars:
Oh, nice. So it’s haunted.

Vivian Le:
It’s goth. Isn’t that cool?

Roman Mars:
I love it.

Vivian Le:
The town is 300 years old. So you could find a ton of these really cool historic sites like that around Occoquan.

Roman Mars:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Lauren Jacobs:
“I mean it’s completely full of really interesting history. They have this famous ghost tour. And Occoquan has all of these kind of ‘certified ghost’ sites and ghost sightings.”

Roman Mars:
What does she mean when she says a certified ghost? How do you get a ghost certified in this world?

Vivian Le:
There’s an organization. They’ll come by and then confirm the validity of your haunting.

Roman Mars:
Of course.

Vivian Le:
And I think I unintentionally made Occoquan sound like the town from ‘Hocus Pocus,’ but it’s actually this really nice area to go shopping. There’s lots of one of a kind mom & pop shops that tend to cater to definitely a wealthier demographic, who wanted to spend the day strolling along the river and maybe buying a $400 pair of sunglasses and then go antiquing. And this was more or less the type of clientele that Lauren’s gallery depended on for sales too.

Lauren Jacobs:
“At the time, we were working a lot off of walk-in traffic, clients who were coming in and they were looking for a really special gift and coming in to spend several hundred dollars.”

Vivian Le:
And I know this sounds like kind of a lot, but it’s not like the artists at her gallery were getting rich off of these sales. From what Lauren tells me, it was really mostly just people who wanted to have a presence in the local arts community, make their rent at the gallery, and then maybe earn just a little something extra on the side. And for a while, everything was going great.

Roman Mars:
The direction this is going indicates to me that things are not going to be going great soon.

Vivian Le:
And then-

Roman Mars:
And then. Okay.

Vivian Le:
So in 2016, Pokémon GO comes out.

Roman Mars:
Oh, okay. Well, that’s not what I was expecting. So Pokémon GO comes out. How does that change everything?

Vivian Le:
So have you ever actually played Pokémon GO?

Roman Mars:
I have not played it. I feel like I’m familiar with it a little bit. It’s kind of like an augmented reality game where you go find these creatures in the built-in environment.

Vivian Le:
Pokémon.

Roman Mars:
Pokémon, right, right. Okay.

Vivian Le:
Yeah.

Roman Mars:
But you find… It’s like a scavenger hunt on your phone.

Vivian Le:
Yeah. Yeah, yeah. I’m going to clarify it just a little bit.

Roman Mars:
Okay, good.

Vivian Le:
So yeah, you’re right, it’s an augmented reality game and it’s based on your real-world location. So you’ll find things in the game by physically going to those places on the Pokémon GO map. So to capture a Pokémon, or there’s these things called ‘PokeStops’ where if you go there, you’ll get prizes within the game, like poke balls and potions and stuff. But you physically have to be at those locations in order to access things within the game.

Roman Mars:
Okay. That makes sense. So it is a way to explore the environment. But that’s why I remember people walking around parks.

Vivian Le:
Yes. Yes.

Roman Mars:
Staring at their phones.

Vivian Le:
And I remember the exact day that Pokémon GO came out and I remember exactly where I was because this was Podcast Movement 2016 in Chicago. And because the gameplay is based around real-world map data, usually the best places to play it are populated cities like Chicago or like New York. But sometimes these little random places just become hotspots for Pokémon activity, which is exactly what happened in Occoquan.

Roman Mars:
Yeah.

Lauren Jacobs:
“Occoquan had always been this kind of sleepy town and you would go and it was very comfortable walking around on these picturesque historic streets and it was kind of this very relaxed kind of outing. And all of a sudden, it was like a river that was far too full teaming with fish. You just couldn’t walk down the streets they were so crowded.”

Roman Mars:
Wow. And so I can get why New York and Chicago and San Francisco would be hot spots. But how did Occoquan become Pokémon central?

Vivian Le:
Yeah, so Pokémon GO was created by this company called Niantic and years earlier, Niantic had come out with this other location-based AR game called ‘Ingress.’ And I’ve never played it before, but Ingress is this game where this mysterious trans-dimensional force appears and you as a player have to interact with these portals based on your actual GPS location. So it was kind of a similar concept of using your real-world location to access things within the game. But these portals within Ingress are all based around real-world landmarks. And the cool thing about Ingress, in particular, was that game users could add landmarks to the map within the game. So if you reach a certain level, you can add a historical site or a mural or whatever to the map. So years later when Niantic teamed up with the Pokémon company to release Pokémon GO, they reused the same map information and all of those portals within Ingress became Pokémon GO PokeStops.

Roman Mars:
So all those historical sites and even the certified ghost haunting sites all became PokeStops along the way?

Vivian Le:
Yeah. She told me that from… While she was working the gallery, from her seat, she could access two PokeStops without ever leaving her chair.

Roman Mars:
Thank goodness for the ghosts.

Vivian Le:
But as you can imagine, this kind of sent the town into a tizzy because it’s such a small town and they weren’t equipped to handle the sudden influx of people walking all over the streets.

Lauren Jacobs:
“In the beginning, enormous pushback. That summer, nothing but pushback. But mostly because the residents were like, ‘Well this has got to be… Can we just make it illegal?’ And the town kept on being like, ‘No. What? What? Illegal for what? What exactly you mean, that people should not be allowed to walk on our streets anymore? What exactly are you proposing?’ And the businesses are like, ‘Well, can we hang signs or something?’ I was like, ‘You can’t. What?’ When has a business ever hung a sign saying that a certain contingency of people isn’t welcome? Where you thought that possibly history would think that that’s okay?”

Roman Mars:
Yeah. Historically, she’s right. Historically, that is not a good look.

Vivian Le:
No.

Roman Mars:
It is immoral. Okay, so I do remember when Pokémon GO came out, that there were these stories of places being inundated with Pokémon GO players, especially trespassing on private property and all that sorts of… And what was one, I feel like there was other sort of sacred places or something like that.

Vivian Le:
Yeah, the Holocaust Museum had to be-

Roman Mars:
Right.

Vivian Le:
They had to say, “Please don’t play Pokémon GO at the Holocaust Museum.”

Roman Mars:
Right. Yeah, okay.

Vivian Le:
So yeah, it was a big deal.

Roman Mars:
I get it. But if this place is kind of meant for a little bit of tourist action, is there some way that they could have just capitalized on it and just sold more things or something like that?

Vivian Le:
Yes. And this did happen. Lauren told me that there were businesses that kind of adapted and popped up to this influx of people, like snack shops would appear and tourist trap, souvenir type, Pokémon GO themed businesses. And she even said that there was a Pokémon GO cruise that opened up that would take you across the Occoquan River at just the right speed so that you could hit all the PokeStops. But if you remember, Occoquan was this place that was known for this kind of upscale shopping and the people who were going to Occoquan to play a video game aren’t going to drop in and buy an antique clock.

Roman Mars:
Okay. So they had the ability to kind of take advantage of a bunch of bougie rich people, but they didn’t have the ability to take advantage of 10-year-olds with iPhones glued to their face.

Vivian Le:
Yes, exactly. They don’t know what to do with these children.

Roman Mars:
Yeah, they’re not buying antique clocks, these kids today.

Vivian Le:
Yeah, but not only were the children not buying antique clocks, because of all this foot traffic, the Pokémon GO players were pretty much driving away the regular clientele who helped pay the bills. Because you go to a place like Occoquan for the quiet vibe and the historic feel and all of a sudden it’s just teaming with a bunch of people on their iPhones.

Roman Mars:
Right.

Lauren Jacobs:
“So yeah, it became kind of a big issue for the residents. Not only were we not seeing people in the gallery, the wealthy residents weren’t shopping in their neighborhood anymore, period. And we had this huge influx of people and instead of revitalizing the town, it completely destroyed commerce.”

Vivian Le:
And this shift in business eventually trickled down into Lauren’s artwork because people were coming in wanting to spend around 20 to 40 bucks. So some of the artists at the gallery started making things that were smaller and cheaper and just generally more palatable to more people. And Lauren found herself doing the same thing.

Lauren Jacobs:
“My artwork has always been weird and contemporary and often creepy. And I was bringing in stuff that was more kind of homogenously whimsical and relatable to more people. And I think just more boring. It wasn’t serving my art at all. I announced that I was going to leave a couple of months ago and January was my last month that I was at the gallery.”

Roman Mars:
Huh. Did things go back to the way they were? I mean, so Pokémon GO, it was a big deal a few years ago. It definitely feels like it’s dwindled. Are people still flooding the streets like it was in 2016 when this all started?

Vivian Le:
Yeah. I think a lot of people in town thought that this was just going to be a little blip on the radar too. But those core clients disappeared. And because of that, the stores that catered to those core clients disappeared too. And I’m not going to say that Occoquan is any worse or better than before, but this one game really disrupted the town enough that it changed it on a permanent scale.

Roman Mars:
Right. And since Niantic reused the Ingress maps for Pokémon GO, if there’s a new game using that same engine, it’s going to happen again, right?

Vivian Le:
Yeah. Yeah. And they actually have reused the same maps for different apps that weren’t as popular as Pokémon GO. But theoretically, they could make something as popular, if not more popular than Pokémon GO and then they’re going to be in another cycle again.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. I mean it’s sort of an amazing phenomenon that you could sort of create a digital map that has so much effect on the real world. It’s kind of a strange amount of power we’re giving augmented reality that I’ve never really thought of before.

Vivian Le:
Yeah, yeah. How do you really regulate something like that?

Roman Mars:
I mean I don’t… Probably the answer is you can’t and you probably shouldn’t, but a map can really change the meaning of a place. And also, it makes you realize that a map for one thing isn’t a map for everything. So reusing these historic sites as popular destinations for cartoon characters… She has her head in her hands.

Vivian Le:
Oh, God.

Roman Mars:
But reusing these historic markers for things that are a game, like obviously the Holocaust Museum isn’t the place for Pokémon GO.

Vivian Le:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Roman Mars:
But both things should exist in the world.

Vivian Le:
Yeah.

Roman Mars:
Pokémon GO should exist in the world.

Vivian Le:
It should. It’s done a lot of great things.

Roman Mars:
Yeah.

Vivian Le:
So I just wanted to give a special thanks to Lauren Jacobs, who I spoke with for the piece and also to Alistair Sticco, who was actually the one who wrote to us and made sure that we knew about this story. So thank you Alistair.

Roman Mars:
Nice. Cool. And if people want to see Lauren Jacob’s self-described creepy art, where can they go?

Vivian Le:
We’ll have a link to it on our website.

Roman Mars:
Okay good. That’s awesome. Thanks, Vivian.

Vivian Le:
Thank you.

——————————————

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Chris Berube, Kurt Kohlstedt, Joe Rosenberg, and Vivian Le. Sean Real wrote all the music, including this Pokémon song. Katie Mingle is our senior producer. The rest of the team is senior editor Delaney Hall, Emmett FitzGerald, Avery Trufelman, Sharif Youssef, Sofia Klatzker and me, Roman Mars.

A special thanks to the Radiotopia donors who make everything we do possible, including Alexander Kandyba, Curtis Galloway, Peter Lyons Photography, Paul Kane, Steph Weaver, and Anil Kandangath.

We are a project of 91.7 KALW in San Francisco and produced on Radio Row. You cannot find it on a map. You can find beautiful downtown Oakland, California.

  1. Ian

    The discussion of graffiti on trip points made me think of the Cofiwch Dryweryn phenomenon. It’s a slogan meaning ‘Remember Tryweryn’ that started appearing all over wales (on Trig Points and elsewhere) as a low key Welsh nationalist movement, recalling the flooding of a Welsh valley to provide water largely for English towns. It began in the 1960s, but is still quite a common phenomenon. Might be an interesting subject for a show some time.

  2. Byron Himberger

    As a long time Ingress player, 99pi has been something of an inspiration (I once used the “always read the plaque” shirt as neutral camouflage during a large scale Ingress battle, where participants often wear faction colors!)

    Since you’re in Oakland, you should probably visit Niantic’s offices in SF (you probably already know what the company name is from…)

    A show about Ingress itself would be worthwhile. It draws thousands of players worldwide to special events and is played daily by many more. A good time to meet some is every first Saturday of the month, when there is an official gathering in cities all over the world.

  3. Devin

    Great episode as usual. It reminded me of my childhood: I used to go to summer camp on Star island in Cass Lake in northern Minnesota (Unistar!!) – I have no way to verify this but the camp used to say the lake located on the island, Lake Windigo, was the largest lake on an island on a lake in the US. Cass Lake is also just downstream from and was once named the head waters for the Mississippi River. A beautiful place to visit in spite of the millions of mayflies that descend on the lake in early summer.

  4. Gus B

    There is another inception island in the Philippines.
    – Vulcan Point Island is inside…
    – Crater Lake which is inside…
    – The Taal volcano and happens to be an island inside…
    – Taal Lake which is inside…
    – Luzon Island, the largest island in the Philippines.

    Vulcan Point Island
    San Nicolas, Philippines
    https://maps.app.goo.gl/cVbsap1scm2CPM1D7

  5. Kevin

    I have to admit, that I had a fleeting hope that one of the stories in this episode would be about people who draw their own maps and invent their own worlds for their writing or for D&D. Even with the limited exposure that I’ve achieved, it blows me away the lengths that some people go to to invent constructed languages or fictional worlds detailed down to the plate tectonics.

    All the same, my own efforts in the future will go a little further to include enclaves and exclaves as well as triangulation stations in my made up maps.

  6. I have always been fascinated by the pieces of states that are separated from their home state by the meandering history of the Mississippi River (and other rivers, I’m sure). Look closely at a Google map of Arkansas’ southeastern border, as just one example. Pieces of Arkansas are now on the Mississippi State side of the river, and vice versa. When this happens, do states ever renegotiate their boundaries?

  7. Madelaine Kirke

    “They were fairly sure where Greenwich observatory was” (approx quote. Longitude is defined by Greenwich observatory!!!!

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