On the limits of Google’s gaze

I flick a switch and zoom in to my childhood home, which I sold recently after my parents were taken ill. I look into our former backyard and see my father there. I try to get closer but I am repelled by the absolute limits of the zoom function. Dad’s face is duly blurred but he is walking purposefully. There is no sign of the broken hip that made him reliant on a walking frame, no sign of the rapidly advancing symptoms of dementia that now afflicts him. He is frozen in time-sickness.

– Simon Sellars, ‘Journey to the Centre of Google Earth’

You find yourself in the middle of a long stretch of road. On either side, fields of what looks like young wheat. There are no cars in sight. The sun is shining – isn’t it always? – but of course you aren’t warm. You can choose to proceed in either direction. Eventually you will come to a road sign, or cross paths with a vehicle whose markings might shed some light on your whereabouts.

Car plates are illegible so I look out for trucks, which often provide clues such as the address of the company. Trucks can come from quite far away, so the information is no absolute guarantee you’re even in a particular country. It’s just a hint, a clue.

Or sometimes you find yourself on the outskirts of a village. When it happens to me, I like to explore the place a little bit before getting down to the business of figuring out its exact location. That is where the pleasure of the game lies: to seek information not from the shop or road signs – which is easy enough – but from the aspect of houses and people. You quickly learn to tell if you’re in a hot country or a temperate one, in a rich town or a poor one. There are unmistakable signs, things we already know at a subconscious level about the shape of people’s lives.

The earliest and most popular game in this genre, GeoGuessr, is nearly as old as Google Street View, on which it is overlaid. There are mobile apps that do the same job, but GeoGuessr is just a website. Every game of GeoGuessr takes you to five locations chosen at random from a given selection, or ‘map’. Some maps are quite specific: you can choose to be transported to urban environments only, or to specific countries. Others span several continents. In any case, after a certain number of moves, you’re going to want to make your guess by placing a pin on the world map at the bottom right corner of the screen. The game will reveal your actual location, and give you points based on the accuracy of your guess.

As Street View has evolved and expanded to cover more and more regions of the world in ever-increasing detail, so too GeoGuessr has become more difficult and interesting. Although it is possible to pit yourself against other players, I don’t play competitively, or keep track of my scores. I suspect treating the game as a pastime is the most common approach. Commentators have remarked upon its addictive nature. To me, it is a palimpsest of what the internet could be: a place of places, an infinitely interactive map of the world. A tool for transporting yourself, as opposed to grasping at whatever pieces of detritus happens to gravitate toward the orbit of your interests on any given day.

For the internet has a double nature: it connects us across time and space, and in doing so produces the illusion that those distances don’t matter, compressing all of history and geography into the here and now. I click on a link that somebody has shared on Twitter: it speaks of things and in a language I understand, but I don’t always bother to find out who wrote it or where and when. Even if I wanted to, digital content from the first decade of the World Wide Web is seldom even dated, and is often unsigned. Context is the first casualty of our unprecedented capacity to instantly access what seems at times like the entire store of human knowledge. But loss of context also impoverishes that knowledge.

Playing GeoGuessr, as I do quite often, I am reminded of these erasures even if the game makes erasures of its own. Africa is very poorly covered at a street level. So is China. But I don’t play the game to be everywhere. I play it to be somewhere.

Occasionally, the game takes the player to a location that cannot be guessed. Street View has a surprising number of such places, which are glitch-like in their appearance. You couldn’t access them from the map, so you wonder why they are even there. Once, for instance, I found myself inside somebody’s office in New Delhi. Off the reception was a utility room with concrete floors and myriad electric cables. I couldn’t tell what kind of business it was, nor was I able to exit the building and access the street.

Another time I ended up in a grass field north-west of Beneficente, Brazil, next to a donkey and some farming implements. I could see a human figure in the distance, but could not get close to it. The frustration of not being able to move past the invisible barriers around me resembled the experience of moving inside in a dream.

At one level, GeoGuessr is just that: an illusion. It creates the sense of being there – wherever there is – without the means of responding to the environment. It also reflects the limits of Google’s gaze, notably its proclivity to map businesses ahead of everything else. Yet even in the unique way the internet has of turning uncanny experiences into the banal texture of the everyday, the game also acts as a reminder of how vast the world is, and how both similar and dissimilar other people’s lives are to our own. And that is no small thing.




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Giovanni Tiso

Giovanni Tiso is an Italian writer and translator based in Aotearoa/New Zealand and the editor of Overland’s online magazine. He tweets as @gtiso.

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