Bill Totten's Weblog

Thursday, June 21, 2007

I Can See Your Thong From Here

Isn't that you, outside your house, with a joint and a hooker?

Google Street Views sees all

by Mark Morford, SF Gate Columnist

SFGate (June 06 2007)

Look, my car is right over there. And I think that's my neighbor's baby stroller, parked by the railing, looking a bit forlorn. And check it out, there's that peculiar older Asian man, caught in mid-gallop, the one who jogs by occasionally in his too-short running shorts and too-tight tank top and who loudly claps his hands every other step in some sort of goofycute exercise tempo, oblivious to all - especially the fact that he was, right that moment, having his picture taken.

And yes, right there, where you see the trumpet vines and the high trellis and the truly fabulous San Francisco stoop I just so happened not to be sitting on at the time of the photo, is my apartment, and there's my home office window and my curtains. Am I waving? Am I naked? Am I huddled under my desk, shivering in fear of a new and eerily omniscient surveillance society? Could be, could be.

Ah, Google, you great wicked benevolent super-cool vaguely disturbing Big Brother uberbitch mega-company, quietly taking over the entire goddamn Net universe and most of the terrestrial world, too, one cool but simultaneously unnerving innovation at a time.

For lo, here is your latest evil genius addition to your phenomenal array of services, called Google Street Views, a new feature that, in case you haven't heard, lets you take a truly street-level, entirely voyeuristic photographic tour of just about any road and any address and any locale of certain select cities (like San Francisco, New York, Vegas and Miami, for starters) - with, as they say, much more to come.

Yes, here are your panoramic eye-level perspectives. Here you can click and turn and look around in any direction. Here you can zoom in with surprising clarity on any building or any landmark or any butt crack you see as you take a block by block, incremental photo by incremental photo urban journey around the city - though not, I notice, through many of the boring twisty windy roads in the outskirts because, well, who cares about the quiet suburban residential areas except stalkers and bored loners and your terminally lost mother-in-law? Exactly.

Already, the Netisphere is abuzz and is having its wry, silly fun. Already wary bloggers and bored office workers are finding Google's crazyamazing tool/novelty quirkily interesting and are reposting all manner of delightful, unexpectedly candid GSV snapshots.

Just look. There's Steve Jobs' Mercedes. There's some guy scaling a gated door and some woman pointing like Spider Woman and there's a girl with a visible thong and another girl with a visible thong and there's Robin Williams' house and hey look it's 4:20 in the Haight and there's some poor sap getting a ticket from a cop and there's the Google camera van itself taking pictures of it all, the silent, roving eye, signifying nothing.

What's the point of all this new, super-evil Google Street Views deliciousness? Who the hell knows? Coolness, for one. Find an address. Find a building. Apartment-hunt like never before. Explore weird/scary/yuppie/boring neighborhoods you'd never frequent otherwise. See your city with new eyes. Why not?

And if someone invites you to a fabulous new sushi joint but you have sporadic agoraphobia and can't decide if you should pop your meds and put some pants on and actually go outside? Well then, simply jump onto GSV and take a quick tour and, boom, there you are, guided visually right to the door, along with the various surrounding landmarks. There's the bank next door. There's the gas station. There's the 6-foot-5 transvestite hooker getting into that senator's car. See? All safe. Just add in the Chronicle's own panoramic interior restaurant views to your research and, hell, you've had half a night out already and you haven't even left the hovel.

The question has been raised: How much is too much? How much implied privacy should we have as a society, as a community, as a city, and do we let this sort of technology run free simply because the draconian creepiness of it all is so easily offset by how damn fascinating and helpful and nifty a utility it so very obviously is?

In other words, should we just shut the hell up about this privacy thing (hey, you live in a cramped, bustling metropolis - privacy is never implied) and be glad it's only happy geeky Google taking what amounts to a giant omnidirectional meta-tourist snapshot of the city and just be glad we're not, say, Britain, which has quietly "sleepwalked its way into a surveillance society" and now has about 4.2 million live, sentient surveillance cameras running nonstop, or about one for every fourteen citizens? Now that's unsettling.

Look at it this way: Maybe Google's bitchin' new service merely indicates a more, shall we say, passive-aggressive surveillance culture for America, Big Brother as your friendly, helpful lifestyle accessory, all of us safe in the knowledge that Google's cameras are not live and the views are far from perfect and in about six months the photos will feel old and tired and outdated anyway. Isn't that reassuring?

You can spin it in all sorts of delightful ways. On the one hand, GSV offers a terrific cultural artifact in and of itself, simultaneously presenting to the world a suspended moment in urban time as well as giving a raw, honest taste of a given city, warts and slackers and loiterers and homeless drug addicts and traffic jams and peeing guys and assorted cafe denizens and all.

It is also, of course, a stalker's paradise, the lonely 'n' bitter ex-boy/girlfriend's dream come true. Just imagine: What glorious, sulky fun to spend hours in front of your computer screen, staring tearfully, resentfully at your ex's neighborhood, his street, his car, his very bedroom window, imagining him in there with his new girlfriend and her ugly cat and her stupid taste in shoes with him laughing happily and painting her toenails and sharing your favorite ice cream and absolutely, positively not thinking about you. Mmm, seething.

And let's not forget GSV's gift to shut-ins and paranoids everywhere, all those lovers of fear who now get to imagine all manner of swarthy terrorists easily scoping out their urban targets with just a few clicks of a mouse, preparing right this minute to bomb their neighborhood Bagel Hut because, you know, terrorists are just that stupid.

Or maybe it's not that at all. Maybe all these perspectives merely scratch the surface of GSV's true implications and the real joy comes from the knowledge that if a goofy, massively popular, insanely wealthy public Internet company has already gone this far, has already gotten this up close and personal with our daily lives, you can absolutely rest assured our own government has certainly gone much, much further.

There now. Don't you feel better?


Thoughts for the author? E-mail him at

Mark Morford's Notes & Errata column appears every Wednesday and Friday on SFGate and in the Datebook section of the San Francisco Chronicle. To get on the e-mail list for this column, please remove one article of clothing and click .

Mark's column also has an RSS feed and an archive of past columns, which includes another tiny photo of Mark probably insufficient for you to recognize him in the street and give him gifts:

(c) 2007 Hearst Communications Inc.

Bill Totten


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