Around the world and perhaps every day, Google's cars roam city streets like the surreptitious scouts of an advancing army: they spy on buildings, cars, and occasionally people, doing the things people do in the real, physical world. This is the world where you still send mail or read books by walking to the post office or the library. Concerns about the future of those spaces aside, they may seem far from Google's digital domain. But Street View is a reminder that in Google's world, the "real" world is, increasingly, a few clicks away.
Google's global fleet of Street View Cars is doing to the streets what its crawlers have done to the rambunctious web, taking snapshots, indexing and repackaging it so that we can always have access to it. Choose to look at Street View this way or not, but it's hard to think about the history of empire from this delirious present moment – and, let's be honest, to research the history of empire, or the history of anything – without thinking about the ambitions of Google's Earth.
The Street View campaign now extends farther than any photographic chronicle in history. It has captured streets on every continent, including Antarctica, where cameras have captured scenes of the South Shetland Islands. The company has plans to shoot photos on the Amazon River, using a boat; already it captures the narrow dirt paths of Amazon villages using a special tricycle. While Germany – the national nemesis of all Silicon Valley privacy-incursions – has managed to stop Google from documenting its streets, Street View has recently resumed in Australia, with HD cameras, after a year-long ban. The High Line park in New York City has just been added.
While Google already documents the interiors of museums as part of its Art Project (the National Museum of Iraq was just added), the company recently announced it was starting to take its campaign to other indoor spaces in its ongoing attempt to ingest the physical realm into the virtual one. The 360-degree panoramas of shops and other businesses, says a Google FAQ, "are being gathered by a team of Google trusted photographers with permission from the businesses involved. These are local photographers who service your neighborhood." The company also released a cheery animated video explaining the project.
The dream of a map so grand, an imperial ambition so outsized, that it becomes the landscape it describes was once described by Jorge Luis Borges. Half a century earlier, Lewis Carrol had his own, wackier version of the idea. But as Avi Sternberg reminded me recently at Paris Review, the land grab being conducted by Google's globe-spanning Street View cars is stranger and darker than either Carroll or Borges imagined.
The random boys flipping off the camera, the villagers in England who formed a human chain to block the entry of the camera car, the ongoing debates in some countries over whether to ban Street View for perceived privacy violations—and even the street art project in Pittsburgh—all get at the problematic core of using the country as its own map. Lewis Carroll imagined the problem comically, as an objection put forth by farmers (it will block the sun!). In "On Exactitude in Science," Borges offers a dark gloss to Carroll's map. "The Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, coinciding point for point with it," writes Borges, will become "useless and permitted to decay and fray under the Sun and winters." The 1:1 map, Carroll's exuberant Grand Idea, is, to Borges, the work of an empire on the verge of decline, with nothing left to do, nowhere left to go. "In the Deserts of the West, still today," he reports, "there are Tattered Ruins of the Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars." If Borges is right, the unwillingness of Street View's skeptics to be captured in the grand map may be the refusal of people to be a part of just such an empire.
Reminders of that refusal are abundant, from debates about Street View privacy violations in Europe (Google uses software to blur out faces and naked bodies where it can) to controversy over the other surveillance work that's been done by Google's cars. But the quotidian scenes that flash by as you take a walk down a Google Street may be the most powerful, the most complex and interesting signs of the company's reach. That's because sometimes we might find in them little flashes of human response, and revolt.
Street View photographs have become the stuff of fine art. The photographer Michael Wolf won an honorable mention in "Daily Life" in the 2011 World Press Photo competition for some of his work using Google's photos. But the uncanny series of scenes that artist Jon Rafman has found on Street View are likely the most famous examples of human activity, inadvertent, unplanned human activity, captured by Google's cameras. By finding these snapshots of reality – however muddy, distorted, video-game-like in their third-person-shooter perspective – the curator "reminds us of our humanity," writes Rafman, "reasserting the significance of the human gaze within Street View." That is, Google may be able to drop by unannounced and take our picture, but they will not be allowed to form our perspective on the world.
But if you've ever gazed into your phone while strolling down the street, you know how difficult that argument is. Google's map, along with other sundry Internet tools, becomes the door of real-world perception. The trend now isn't just finding interesting moments on Street View; it's making them happen.
In some cases, Google is complicit, as it must be, since only Google knows its scheduled routes. See the little performance-art pieces that can be seen along the Pittsburgh's Sampsonia Way, thanks to an art group, or the ones from Google's campus, possibly the byproduct of an annual team-building event.
But in a number of other scenes – a number that may be growing every day, at a rate that few humans or computers can know – the Street View Car's photos have a darker tint. They burn at the edges, communicate an unfriendly, uncorporate reality, conveying scenes of confusion, anger, even violence.
There are echoes in these photos of the emergencies that have transpired around the world lately, especially because many of those events have been linked to the influence of social media. Debate the political power of Twitter, but it's impossible to ignore the sheer speed of hashtags, or the symbolic power of public complaint when it can be posted, if not digested, pages per second.
The empire of a Google or a Facebook doesn't just shape the web. Twitter has a State Department liaison, Facebook is hiring ambassadors around the globe. Both companies are now indispensable tools for political candidates in the U.S., be it online or at town hall events, to say nothing of their lobbying efforts and monetary contributions. The Arab Spring, now looking increasingly tenuous, began not at Tahir Square but on a Facebook page launched by a Google employee who subsequently became the face of the movement.
Where does Google Street View go next, and where do we go, after the Map begins to show its fraying edges? Perhaps people will take more of a hands-on, artistic, Rafman-esque approach to the Map, scouting it with the human perspective that Google's dispassionate, automatic images lack. It's hard not to wonder if map-making could be the initial purpose of the company's driverless car project – a fleet of road-borne drones constantly updating our maps, remotely.
Might digital activists – or Facebook employees, in the heat of turf war – find new ways to subvert these candid neighborhood photo sessions? Perhaps bands of citizens in the U.S. but especially in the less charted places of the Google Map will see in the effort not just questions about privacy, but questions about what the world looks like. What would an occupation of the Google Map look like?