Google Maps and the Design of Memory

A few months ago, I wrote a post about Facebook's then-looming IPO and a business model predicated upon the redesign of human memory. Today, I heard a podcast from The Story, an interview show out of North Carolina. One of the secondary spots in the program concerned Google Street View. Guest host Sean Cole introduced the piece with his own Street View experience, wherein he, as a young man, realizes his bike is stolen as he is on the phone with his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend. All of this crystallizes in his memory when Cole looks up his old apartment on Google. His bike is still locked up in front of the building, waiting for its owner to hop on and ride to a date with his girlfriend. 

That is a lot of baggage to hang onto a grainy, digitally refracted photo of an old walk-up in Brooklyn. But it gets heavier. Cole introduces Erin, an old friend, who has archived several Street View screenshots of the house she grew up in. The front yard still holds her father's beat-up old Suburban, covered in University of Wisconsin stickers. It has been gone for years, sold after her father committed suicide by jumping off of a parking garage. He left no note, but did leave voicemails on Erin's phone and, unconsciously, a faint imprint on the internet. So she treasures these things, as I think we all would, backing up the voicemails to her computer and saving these screenshots in case the SV team comes back and updates their data. 

My last apartment in Chicago.

Google Street View was launched in May, 2007. It relies on a fleet of cars, each sporting an eight-foot post topped with nine cameras, continuously shooting a panorama of their surroundings as the vehicle passes through time and space. The images are linked with laser rangefinders, GPS, and software to create seamless stitched panoramas. In their continuing drive to come out atop the brewing fight over geo-location's role in mobile business, Google has deepened and widened their maps, adding layers of photos, webcams, traffic information, and even Google Earth, which is includes architectural models of buildings. Google Maps are becoming a 1:1 map of the world, a peculiar fantasy explored by Luis Borges in his story On Exactitude in Science.

Google is now developing (pretty good) autonomous cars, which will, one day, probably remove the human element from data capture for Street View. The scale of the data is so vast as to be almost unimaginable; Google is literally driving the world in an effort to catalog all of the world's information, attempting to integrate virtual and physical reality. Soon, they'll be inside our buildings. A recent article in The Atlantic reveals the intricate machinery behind Maps, and the now-fraying edge between the physical and digital.

I rented a few rooms in this house when I first moved to Alabama.
Erin thought the Street View of her old house was both disturbing and comforting, in equal measure. The pictures in old photo albums, or on Facebook, were all put there by us. We have a context for them beyond what is contained in the frame, and they summon a whole suite of related memories. A picture of a graduation party, for instance, may conjure the smell of fresh-cut grass, the sweating aluminum of a cold beer, the taste of hot hamburger, the beating May sun. Erin found the house familiar, she recognized the car in the driveway, but something was off.

Street View's photos are not our own. They are divorced from the context that gives our own photos a whole constellation of meaning. They are the photos of a voyeur. For now, Google does not accurately time-tag their photos to the public, and physical reality means they cannot be refreshed more than once every few years. So Erin finds this particular moment trapped in Street View's amber, a moment that is particularly poignant to her, but a moment that is separated from the circumstances that allow her to make sense of it.

So I went and Googled all my former addresses. They all look out-of-date. Some, given their remote location, are not on Street View, only satellite. Greensboro, Alabama, about as rural of town as you can find, is thoroughly catalogued on Street View. Arcosanti, marooned in the desert, is not. My current project at work, the Black Cinema House, is shown in its former incarnation, the grand old building slashed into eight apartments.

Arcosanti, via satellite.

My second apartment in Greensboro was the loft above this storefront.
These ghost images, flash-frozen by the camera even as time erases their relevance, are recording our history in a new way. Street View has only been going on for five years, and many places have only been photographed once so far. Theoretically, moving forward, the same places will be passed over again and again. The satellite imagery has a faster refresh rate than Street View, and we can already see that changing in almost real time. This real time updating threatens to ruin these maps as a historical documents, as our footsteps are erased behind us, trapping us in an ever-present now.

The Black Cinema House, as it once was. It's kind of obscured by the trees and so forth, but you can tell it once had a front porch. If you pan around front, someone is sitting on the stoop, one of those weird Street View serendipities.
I want Google to put forward the archives, as they become available, time-stamped and sorted. In a decade, we will have the beginnings of a digital palimpsest, a series of overlays that can readily track the changing dimensions of the world. Right now, I am reading The Devil and the White City, a set of parallel tales about a serial killer and an architect at the time of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. It all happened not far from where I;ve been working on the Black Cinema House. Images from the fair are legion, and easy to find online; images from the dark and gritty neighborhoods where H.H. Holmes found his victims are not. 100 years from now, someone may be reading a history of the south side of Chicago, and be able to click through a timeline of Street Views, paging from year to year, building to building, and construct their own history.

Google's redesign of our memory is much different than Facebook's; one concerns the archiving of personal memory, and the other concerns collective memory. Street View is a collective unconscious, generating data about our world in an impersonal way, which I find more compelling. On all our varied screens, we hold this Borgian meta-map. We are not hostages to what we ate for lunch 8 months ago on Instagram. We are not beholden to our drunken office Christmas party photos, shamefacedly untagged on Facebook. We hold history, and we can decide our place in it. 

Google has built the world's greatest memory palace, archiving our mysteries, capturing serendipities, recording loss. One day, already even, this unblinking digital haze will color even our own memories, merging into a hybrid of indistinguishable origin. Carl Jung, writing almost 100 years ago, predicted this beautifully:

". . . we have plunged down a cataract of progress which sweeps us on into the future with ever wilder violence the farther it takes us from our roots. Once the past has been breached, it is usually annihilated, and there is no stopping the forward motion. But it is precisely the loss of connection with the past, our uprootedness, which has given rise to the “discontents” of civilization and to such a flurry and haste that we live more in the future and its chimerical promises of a golden age than in the present with which our whole evolutionary background has not yet caught up. We rush impetuously into novelty, driven by a mounting sense of insufficiency, dissatisfaction, and restlessness. We no longer live on what we have, but on promises, no longer in the light of the present day, but in the darkness of the future, which, we expect, will at last bring the proper sunrise." -- via Root Simple