If you follow Nassau Street towards the southwest, it feeds into Route 206, and, after passing Lawrenceville, you’ll likely merge onto Interstate 95 to get wherever you need to go more quickly. If you stay on 206, after a meandering 54-mile journey, the road changes to Route 54. 12 miles more and Route 54 transitions into County Road 619 at the intersection with Route 40 in Buena, New Jersey. 10 miles later, and you’re at a dead-end in Vineland, NJ, with Monmouth County in plain view a quarter mile ahead, yet stubbornly out of reach. Like in a Choose Your Own Adventure book, a simple divergence at any earlier point would have spared you this unsatisfactory termination. For instance, a left onto Route 47 in Vineland leads one 48 miles further, across the Grassy Sound to Wildwood, NJ, a resort community on the shore. And finally, a memorable snapshot. A cul-de-sac surrounded by dozens of out-of-scale metal beach volleyballs leads to a sculpture of letters spelling “Wildwoods,” inexplicably in the plural. A dead-end of sorts as well, but there are parking lots on either side, inviting travelers to park and stroll, and beyond the sculpture awaits what must be the ocean. A natural phenomenon brings this trip to an end, not an expression of arcane county geography.
Most students are unaware that Nassau Street is in fact a state highway, Route 27. It begins in Princeton, and after thirty eight miles, feeds into the McCarter highway at a non-descript location in an industrial part of Newark. Most would have veered onto Route 22 a mile earlier, leading them onto the labyrinth of roads towards the tunnels into Manhattan. Route 27 ends in Newark, but traffic still moves on. There is an implicit understanding that roads usually lead to other roads. If a wrong turn is made, it can be easily redeemed by subsequent turns. In an articulated network of pavement, the dead-end then becomes unsettling. A road with an outlet is traveled on not just by those who shop or live on it. With the additional role of thoroughfare, those heading elsewhere also pass by on it, and the road becomes a public space. A driver operates with the basic assumption of interconnected public thoroughfares, and mile by mile, strengthens it with empirical evidence.
Heading to the south, the assumption indeed holds largely true. Except where you might dead-end at the Gulf of Mexico, roads continue to Mexico, and eventually, if you make the right turns, you’ll reach Patagonia. Heading to the north, one might be tempted to adopt a similar mindset. Though the far northern reaches of Canada are sparsely populated, it seems natural that there should be at least small roads extending into its depths, and maybe even to the Arctic Ocean. From Newark, where you merged onto the McCarter highway, you head towards the border with New York, trying to keep approximately even with the longitudinal line of Princeton heading due north. You hit Montreal, then continue on Route 40 along the north side of the Saint-Laurent. It ends, at the Trans-Quebec Highway, and you head take the exit to the north. Then another fork at Route 169, another snapshot. Right before the intersection, there is a blue line with a question mark pointing to the left. A few yards later, and there is a triumvirate of hideous gas stations, a look towards the sky, and there are oddly speckled clouds. To the left is nord, to the south sud, and left it is. The final turn is in Saint-Felicien, another left onto Route 167. To your right, on a pedestal in a strip mall, you see a statue of a chef in stereotypical French style, with two streetlights coming out of his poofy white hat like spider-legs. You make a left, following a blue 18-wheeler, the perimeter of its empty backside equipped with tall wooden posts striped red and white on the bottom.
After endless groves of pine trees, some felled by the nascent logging industry in the region, you approach another Petro-Canada on the left. But just as you are about to pass it, suddenly and inexplicably, you find yourself next to the pump. You set out to continue, and when you reach a fork with Route 113, you of course opt to continue north. The road continues into the gray sky, you can’t even see where it ends. But nonetheless, you are at a dead-end, arrows point you only to the left and back the way you came. Google Streetview, our eyes for this journey, the agent for this journey, does not continue for whatever reason. The van might have run out of gas, or perhaps night was about to fall. Route 167 continues a little more than a hundred miles further to the north, then bends to the left to end at Lake Albanet. You’ll probably never see the last leg of the road. All we can see is a geotagged photograph of its terminus at a “quai du camping.” There is a truck with an open driver’s door. A middle-aged woman sits on the wood of the quay towards the left of the image, and opposite her, twenty or so feet away, is a middle-aged man. Both stare at the ground ardently.
Google Streetview, a project in conjunction with Google Maps, aims to photograph every public thoroughfare in the United States, and eventually it seems, in the entire world. It started in 2007 with major American cities, and has now expanded to include numerous countries, the most recent of which being Thailand, which was added last month. It is understandable that rural Quebec and other remote areas do not have complete Streetview coverage; Google wants to prioritize coverage of places that are going to be viewed most often. Accordingly, Streetview coverage in Manhattan is extensive, but there are still the slightest gaps. In downtown Manhattan, there is no Streetview on Pearl Street between Broad Street and Hanover Square. In Washington Heights in northern Manhattan, 160th St slopes downwards from Riverside Dr to Broadway, but after a few feet, the Streetview ends and does not re-continue until east of Broadway. Over the past few years, Google has been updating Streetview in major cities to replace lower-quality images it took in 2007. Based on coverage of surrounding streets, 160th St will likely soon be part of this update. But there is always the possibility its coverage will remain as it is, constituting a random den of privacy spared from the prying eyes of Google.
In 5 years since the launch of Streetview, Witherspoon St in Princeton has not yet been covered. From my room, writing this article, I can explore the wilds of Canada, but not drive past Small World and the Public Library towards Princeton Medical Center. Google has made it to the northern reaches of Norway, following roads all the way to bluffs with stunning vistas of the Arctic Ocean, or traversing between fjords; snow-capped rocky hills on one side and the frothing sea on the next. It appears that this journey was undertaken for the sheer purpose of natural beauty. Streetview is often an aid in navigation, but during its far northern stretch, route 890 in Norway has no intersections or other features that could lead a driver astray. This photography seems to have no explicit point, and for a company that is now thoroughly corporate, could very well be considered a waste of resources. Google, however, has persisted in these purely non-utilitarian Streetview endeavors, even adding panorama shots of part of the Amazon and a very small section of Antartica. These were to some extent publicity stunts, but like other projects such as pedestrian forays into public parks, also portend an innovation of Streetview. Google wants its users to see not just what is on car-accessible streets, but also to see things from boats, trains, and footpaths. If Google were to expand this service with views from helicopters, views from behind manhole covers, views from various floors of apartment buildings, it would be well on its way to what could be called “omnivision,” an ability to see everything from everywhere all at once.
Omnivision is all-encompassing, and accordingly, Google’s most recent Streetview project is what is called “Business Interiors.” Businesses can sign up for the service, and, for a fee, a professional photographer will come to their establishment to photograph its interior. Google processes the photographs and posts them to the business’s Google Places listing. When an internet user accesses the Places page, they have an option to “look inside” and wander about the business, much in the same way they wander about a city with Streetview. The businesses are usually empty, but restaurants usually have lingering patrons, who vary between staring at the camera and minding their own business completely. For now, Business Interiors is not integrated with exterior Streetview. When walking outside of a business you do not see an arrow directing you inside, instead you must search for the business to access its Places listing, where the “look inside” option is featured.
Recently, I was in a dentist’s office in San Francisco. Upon descending into the premises, I find myself confronted with aggressively modern, minimalistic interior design. There is a long corridor, with various nooks containing reclining dentist chairs and a backdrop of random gold and white dots. Installed in the ceiling, there is a TV displaying an image of what seems to be a church, and on the periphery of the ceiling, soft light diffuses down the walls. I can not peek into the nooks further down the hall. Perhaps they are occupied by patients. I can only go towards the front (in total there are just three images), where the minimalist aesthetic is augured by two bright-colored, boring paintings. Appropriately, Dwell and Wired can be found on the magazine rack. Below the paintings sits a young woman with glasses texting, her face blurred by Google for privacy, who, through some error of technology, has been transformed into a two-headed, four-handed creature. On the bench next to hers sits a young man with dense curly hair and generically hip garb (gray t-shirt with some purple image, olive green Converse, cuffed dark-wash denim, Timbuk2 bag), sifting through a magazine, its title too blurry to make out.
Are these three images of any more use than those of empty roads in arctic Scandinavia? Business Interiors operates foremost in a commercial context. Google promises that by having their interiors photographed, businesses will benefit from higher search rankings. Yet beyond that, the businesses must think that, in addition to customer reviews, the interiors of their establishments must have some appeal. The ten Google reviews of the dentist will tell you that “Dr Pool is a man among boys in the dental world” and that they have a “new, modern office and are all genuinely nice people.” As lauding as these reviews are, perhaps they are not sufficient to convince the dentist-weary, and it is only the virtual experience of a bright waiting room featuring diffused light and expensive magazines with copious Helvetica font that seals the deal.
The alternate conclusion is that Business Interiors is just one more step in Google’s efforts to see all that can be seen. The conspiratorially-minded point to Google Streetview as a step towards imminent total surveillance. Most Streetview opponents start with the assumption that the service has no practical application whatsoever, and can therefore only be an element of some sinister plot, or, as some argue, a tool of use to terrorists and crooks. In 2010, there was a case opened against Google alleging that the company collected internet use data on Wi-Fi networks while conducting Streetview. Google later admitted to doing so, and this week was fined $25,000 by the FCC for impeding the investigation. In Germany, Google was faced with broad popular opposition to Streetview, and as a concession, Google offered to blur properties appearing in Streetview images upon the owner’s request. To date, the owners of nearly 250,000 German properties have opted to do so.
These theories can explain only partially the mystery behind Streetview. If data harvesting is its ultimate mission, what purpose do shots of the middle of nowhere serve? There are no statistics available, but there are likely at least hundreds of individual Streetview images that have never been viewed once. Even avid Streetview aficionados, this author included, can get bored within a few dozen clicks on a rural road, leaving large stretches of it untouched. Rural highways do not have addresses either, so most of the images can only be accessed by an arbitrary placement of the orange peg-man. Whatever these images may be, whether viewed once or thousands of times, they are at the very least art. The artist John Rafman exemplifies this by compiling Streetview images on his blog 9-eyes: among them burning forests, mossy shipwrecks, Soviet mosaics, all utterly beautiful. For out of thousands of photos taken, there are bound to be beautiful ones; it is just a matter of locating them. Like a rural Arctic road or an unremarkable building on 160th street awaiting a camera-topped , Google-decorated sedan that will transmit their likenesses into cyberspace, the Streetview image awaits its discovery by a little orange man who, whether surveillance, people-watching, crime, navigation, exploration, real-estate hunting, or art, might give purpose to what are no more than pixelated depictions of space.