The Portraits of Google Street View


The New Museum in New York has a fascinating exhibition up through January called Free that takes "explores how the internet has fundamentally changed our landscape of information and our notion of public space." The catalog from the show is online for all to see.

My acquaintance Joanne McNeil wrote an essay for the book that I love. She looks at what several works from the show say about how we see our collective future. Jon Rafman's Selections from 9 Eyes of Google Street View underpin her analysis. Rafman culled unintentional portraits of people going about their lives as the Google van rumbled by. He found the art embedded inside this decidedly prosaic mapping exercise.

McNeil, for her part, thinks hard about Google's project through the years. She projects a time when the image quality of Google's technology will plateau. Without timestamps or physical markers of their era, the site "will achieve a perfect atemporality."

Time is just another thing to scramble and remix on the Internet. Now Google is in the process of reshooting everything in higher resolution, creating the possibility of an enormous geomatic archive if they continue the project. There are reports that the company intends to "refresh" the data every year. Eventually the quality of Street View photography will peak and the website will achieve a perfect atemporality. The image quality of 100 Oak St in Google Street View in 2015 will look no different from a 2025 representation. Date is then determined by recondite indications of the landscape and architecture transforming. No sepia tone, no lens flare occurs to sort these images into their respective moments in history.


Her conclusion about the networked world is not unlike Bruce Sterling's. We live in atemporal times, he's been telling us. The real world of the future has, in the important senses, frozen in our imagination, McNeil says.

The future was once represented in fantastically romantic ways: white spacesuits, buildings infinite in height, interplanetary travel, alien interactions, an abundance of wealth, and robot servitude. Now the future is represented as something more compressed and accessible. The future is on the Internet, in those screens we glance at intermittently at all waking hours of the day. Our expectation is the "IRL" world will look not much unlike what we see today. It is a future of gradual changes, incorporating familiar aspects with new but not too crazy updated technology. What is in abundance is not wealth but information.

The idea of the future is now a distorted mirror. It is the future of screens. Like the daguerreotype, screens contain memory and reflection, as well as an unknown difference only discerning eyes can see. We are overfutured. We've reached the point where the past, present, and future look no different from one another.

Images: Jon Rafman.