Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific Standard, GOOD, The Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
An artist recreates the scenes captured by Google's cameras.
Google’s Street View cars have documented all over the world city storefronts, bus stops, apartment stoops and sidewalks. If you’ve ever spent any time trolling through these digital streetscapes, you know that Google also – perhaps accidentally – captured one other essential element of life in the city: These places are inhabited by people.
Depending on your point of view, this may be a charming element of Google Street View. Otherwise static scenes of buildings and infrastructure are peppered with intimate glimpses of people who just happened to be out cooling in a fire hydrant or pushing a baby stroller as the Google car drove by. There’s a whole cottage industry online devoted to mining for these oddities (see here, here, here, and here, a blog devoted entirely to people caught walking their dogs on Google Street View).
Artist Paolo Cirio, however, believes that all of these images are misappropriated data.
"It’s really interesting for me that Google didn’t ask permission to do what they did, just going around every single city in the world and taking pictures without even alerting the police, or the public administration," Cirio says this week from New York. "Even more weird to me that they didn’t pay anything to do that."
As a response to that violation of privacy, he has taken images of some of these bystanders from Google Street View and altered and reproduced them without Google’s permission. In several cities across the country, he has clipped these people from the Internet, further blurred their features and blown them up on lifestize posters – which he plasters onto precisely the same spots in the real world where Google first captured them. He is, in a sense, "de-virtualizing" these people.
Cirio intends each of these images – street ghosts, he calls them – to look like a "digital shadow haunting the real world." As he writes in his artist statement on the project’s website, "they appear as casualties of the info-war in the city, a transitory record of collateral damage from the battle between corporations, governments, civilians and algorithms."
His art may make you think about Google Street View differently. What would those city scenes look like if they had no one in them? Would that be even more ghostly?
And what about these people who give Google Street View its humanity: Do they have an expectation to privacy on public streets? Do their images belong to them? And does this data really matter to Google as anything more than background (or, rather, foreground) noise that gets swept up with the landscape?
"Sometimes we think that some type of data is not really relevant, or important to us," Cirio says. "Some people don’t mind if Google goes in the streets and takes pictures. But this information, this data becomes relevant when it’s aggregated together in a big amount, when they can store it and eventually find value inside that data later on."
An interesting thing happened when Cirio started to put up these posters on the streets of Berlin, London and New York. This would, you’d think, be a strange sight on the street, a man plastering blurred but lifesize images of strangers onto public walls. But Cirio didn’t get much reaction at all. Most people, he says, were busy walking down the street staring into their phones.
"I feel in a way that something on the screen today, on our monitor of our devices, is actually more powerful in influencing us much more than what happens in the physical space, on the walls of our streets," he says. "Maybe that’s the reality of the day. People don’t really realize what is going on next to them in the physical space."
Online, however, his project has exploded with attention from all over the world. In New York, Cirio put up just three posters. But the impact of those three installations has been magnified on the Internet. This is, he says, why Google Street View is so relevant: We react more to what we see on a screen than on our actual streets. You may not notice, he jokes, a naked guy sitting on the subway next to you. But put that scene on YouTube?
For now, the project is still underway, although the scope of Cirio’s efforts compared to all of the Google ghosts on Street View seems a little overwhelming.
“The potential walls and streets, and cities in the world are so many. I won’t be able to cover all of them,” he says. But he’s also heard now from people in Sydney, Australia and Hong Kong who want to collaborate on local installations. “It may become viral,” Cirio says. “It may cover everywhere.”
Here are several side-by-side images of Cirio's installations alongside their original Google Street View Doppelgangers:
All images courtesy of Paolo Cirio.