Google's accidental robo-selfies are a chance to glimpse the transitionary moment before our entire sensory experience is digitized.
Google Art Project, the omniscient search provider's Street View-style virtualization of museums and other cultural institutions, is meant to make the world's treasures more accessible to all. In pursuing that goal, it has also inadvertently created windows into the strange interstitial space between our real and online worlds. Wander past a mirror, and the sense of roaming a museum is suddenly shattered as you find yourself staring into the compound-eye of the machine behind the illusion.
Looking like Hal-9000 in high heels, the robot looking back holds the camera Google uses to capture the images it stitches together to recreate the museum, our unblinking vessel through the virtual world. It embodies questions about the complex meanings of 'what,' 'who,' and 'where' that make the Internet such a beguiling topic.
There's a New Aesthetic-y nougat to these moments that several digital artists have been trying to capture since Art Project went live in 2011. That year, Chadwick Gibson began compiling the accidental glimpses of Google as part of a project he calls Googlegeist. Struck by the same notion a couple years later, artist Mario Santamaria started his own project, The Camera in the Mirror, dedicated to collecting the spooky images.
Santamaria's screen grabs were shared widely around the web recently, but they were so similar that eventually he changed the project's name and removed some of the pictures from the series. Gibson's work is longer-standing, and also unique in that it's already crossed the physical/digital line, like his "heists" of artwork from Art Project that are hung up as stereoscopic 3D prints.
"When I first saw them, it was the strongest feeling of that sort of behind-the-curtain, fourth wall thing that I'd ever experienced," Gibson told me. "This thing that's gazing back at us in the mirror is like the medium that is basically responsible for connecting these two worlds."
These trolleys—with nine of Google's near-HD 4th generation cameras arranged in a rosette on their "heads"—have something of a personality; they even exhibit an evolving fashion sense. The latest versions have a sci-fi chic silver cloak and cameras distributed in an apparently asymmetrical pattern reminiscent of a Dalek. "At this point the machine looks like a combination of Hal 9000, Johnny Five, and a wizard."
The devices certainly have a presence. Surrounded by works of art and ornate decorations, they stand in stark metallic contrast with their environments. In several pictures there are parted curtains framing the mirror, lending to the Oz-esque sense that one's witnessing the unveiling of the bulky machinery behind Google's panopticon.
Everyone talks about Google as if it's all-seeing, almost like a god.
"There's a cuteness to it, and then there's also a creepiness to it," Gibson said. "Everyone talks about Google as if it's all-seeing, almost like a god. I think this camera and the body and everything is the closest thing people have to a physical form to kind of embody that."
These encounters represent wrinkles in the seamless virtualization of our world that Google is trying to build. They take great pains to minimize them. In addition to blurring out bystanders' faces, their algorithms are usually very effective at smudging away any trace of the equipment atop which the cameras are mounted (try looking straight down in Street View).
The cameras' operators make occasional fuzzy appearances in Googlegeist, despite being coached to avoid mirrors and position the camera so as to keep the equipment out of the frame. In mirror-laden complexes like museums and opera houses, that's not always possible.
"Their goal is to recreate, say, a museum to exactness if possible so that people can go and see it just as if it were in real life," says Gibson. "Having any sort of creases or instances where the illusion is revealed by seeing the machine that makes it, it takes people out of the experience, and makes them start to question what they're seeing and wonder if it's being displayed to them correctly."
Gibson got to experience the process first-hand when he held an exhibition of the eerie images at his small Los Angeles gallery, which he then paid Google to virtualize in business view. The result was a brain-meltingly meta exhibition of Google's accidental self portraits, which visitors could peruse using Street View on a computer inside the gallery itself:
In a sense, the images are pretty mundane. Of course you're not going to see yourself in the mirror using Google. The insight here is not some operational secret that Google has failed to cover up; instead, it raises questions about our place in the scene we occupy as users of this technology. When someone points over your shoulder and says 'move over there' in a Street View session, you'll know what to do even if you don't think about what 'move' or 'there' really means.
Still, Google seems genuinely interested in creating a representation of the real world that will ultimately cause those blurry conceptual borders to disappear entirely.
"We want to paint the world," Google Maps's Luc Vincent told the New York Times.
Today, GSV is already compatible with VR headsets, which Google is keen to get in front of as many eyeballs as possible. These glitches represent holes in the complete picture of the world it wants to paint, and you can bet that even these fluky gaps in the experience will be covered up.
Images like these represent a moment when exploring our world is increasingly a mediated experience. There isn't necessarily anything to be worried about here, even if it's somewhat creepy or unsettling. We're at a transitional point with this technology, wherein reality is becoming augmented and simulated to bring us experiences we couldn't have before in places we might not otherwise be able to visit. In that sense, maybe we can see these Grand Inquisitors as our friends… or perhaps even as versions of ourselves. Either way, we should be paying attention as this change takes place.
"I hope that when people see this and think about it that it makes them just more aware about how this ubiquitous thing functions rather than make them overly paranoid and then not participate," Gibson said. "I'd rather have people informed using all this stuff because we can steer it into the right direction. I think that's actually more productive and more subversive than being scared of it and not using it."