The Narrative Landscape of Google Street View

[Ed. note: this post is part of a Roundtable discussion on “Experimental Media and the City.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

Though Google Earth originated as a synoptic medium, its Street View function, which continues to expand exponentially, permits anyone access “below the thresholds at which visibility begins,” as De Certeau has it. This populist tool has dramatically altered humans’ relationship to the globe – “bringing the exotic to our doorstep while rendering the distant familiar.”1Cosgrove cited in Corner J 1999. Recovering Landscape: Essays in Contemporary Landscape Theory, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, pp. 117. Street View’s limitless extension depends on Google’s continued recruitment of willing users to contribute to its global database in a kind of guerilla mapping of places these individuals choose to capture. Thus, rather than the supposed neutrality of its robotic gaze, Street View has become a rich repository of human values. The method of capturing Street View data and processing it for our consumption is highly abstracted despite appearing unmediated.

The mediated landscape of Google Street View. Image courtesy of author.

Photographs taken with a multi-lens, spherical camera are stitched together into “flat” panoramas, which are then projected onto a sphere to simulate “reality.” This 360-degree image capture dissolves both the perspectival view and the frame that distances the subject from the object of contemplation. As a contemporary mode of seeing, Street View, with its biases, distortions of time and space, and occasional fortuitous imprecisions, simulates the world yet remains distinct from it as its own truth or autonomous reality.

Its familiar but alien qualities allow us to recognize aspects of our surroundings that remain alternatively overlooked, while provoking us to imagine how things could be otherwise. Street View is a form of vision that distorts our expectations of reality, yet it presents the world laid bare, and so could not be more real. Without judgment, its detached gaze captures the rawness of humanity and the use, misuse, and appropriation of space by inhabitants obliviously performing acts of everyday life.

Street View’s back of house realities. Found footage by author.

While the tourist typically travels to parts of a city that have been constructed for their view and consumption, traveling through Street View provides access to back-of-house or typically hidden realities that provoke new questions about society and the relationships between power and landscape construction while raising continued questions about voyeurism and forms of surveillance.

In addition, Street View’s infinitely shifting panoramas enable an anthropologic study of place. Anthropologists have begun excavating Street View for the ethnographic data it unexpectedly and “neutrally” captures. Artists, such as Jon Rafman and Michael Wolf, also mine Street View for uncanny moments of social encounter in the landscape. The spatio-temporal and provisional quality of these moments become the trigger for imaginative reinvention.

Narrative glimpses. Found footage by author.

Street View allows the explorative wander through the monumental and mundane to uncover opportunities for inventive speculation. While marketed as a means of orientation and utmost visibility, it is what Street View does not reveal that catalyzes us to travel its infinite itineraries: to get lost. Like the 18th century European fascination with ruins, the mere glimpses Street View provides provokes us to imaginatively fill in the gaps, to generate the storylines that endow these partial situations with possibility and meaning. Street View stimulates what scholar Ross Gibson calls “narrative hunger”: the silence of Street View’s seemingly neutral gaze arouses longing to understand a narrative presence, a story of people and place.

As a vast storage of data or “collection of items on which the user can perform various operations,” Street View is also a straight-forward example of the database that has become symbolic of our computer age.2 Manovich, L. 1999. ‘The Database as Symbolic Form,’ Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, 5/2, pp. 80. While both Manovich and his critic, Grahame Weinbren, agree on the limitations of sequential narrative in a world of expansive thought and experience, they both seek to find some synthesis between the rise of the database and the richness of story. Manovich describes sequential narrative as tyrannical in the same way an assembly line is, and his reference to the Fordist assembly line is useful. Just as we have shifted away from the singularity of Fordism to the plurality of global consumerism, so we transition from linear narrative to “multilinear structures”3Weinbren, G. 2007. “Ocean, Database, Recut” in Database Aesthetics: Art in the Age of Information Overflow, V. V. Bulajić (ed.). University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis. or “interactive narrative.” Weinbren uses the example of Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990) as a reference for multilinear narrative structures. Each ocean current contains a different story, “and because the stories were held here in fluid form, they had the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves and to join up with other stories and so become yet other stories.” Weinbren goes on to suggest that Rushdie’s Ocean, which Rushdie calls “the biggest library in the universe,” is most certainly a database.4Rushdie cited in Weinbren 2007, pp. 61.

With its infinite itineraries, Street View provides the same possibility for a radical opening up of the singularity of the traditional narrative structure, as well as the singularity of the static map. Weinbren challenges the conventions of narrative set forth by cultural theorist Mieke Bal, arguing that it is “events,” not the description of them, that make stories.5Weinbren 2007, pp. 66. In Street View,  situations – the sociospatial circumstances it uncovers – stimulate stories for which a world is imaginatively transformed. Street View is therefore the ultimate “interactive narrative,” offering endless opportunities for choice with the infinite possible itineraries opening up equally infinite stories of time, people and place.

As Street View “consumers” – to return to De Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life and his chapter, “Walking in the City” – we tactically overturn the metanarrative by tracing our own sequences through space (and time). Rather than “walkers” in the physical sense, we may translate the everyday practice of De Certeau’s text into a “walk” through Street View. As De Certeau notes, the city’s “ordinary practitioners… follow the thicks and thins of an urban ‘text’ they write without being able to read it…. The networks of these moving, intersecting writings compose a manifold story that has neither author nor spectator…”6Certeau 1984, pp. 93. The infinite trajectories created by the walkers’ (users’) endless choice through Street View likewise create the infinite story currents of Rushdie’s Ocean.

De Certeau’s emphasis on walking is one of the number of everyday practices that he uses as examples to describe the underconsidered acts of “consumer production” – what the powerless “make” or “do” with the products of institutional systems or ways of using products imposed by a dominant economic order. These “ingenious ways in which the weak make use of the strong,” thus imply a creative form of transgression. It is in his chapter on “Spatial Stories” that he pertinently addresses the complexity between navigation and storymaking. De Certeau states, “Every story is a travel story – a spatial practice.” He goes on to make a distinction between the “map” and the “story” or “itinerary” – equating the latter two terms. De Certeau presents the map as a strategic and totalizing projection that is reductive and erases the infinite itineraries that transform places into spaces. He states, “In Greek, narration is called ‘diagesis’: it establishes an itinerary (it ‘guides’) and it passes through (it ‘transgresses’).”7Ibid., pp. 129. Rather than the traditional map, which delimits boundaries and fixes place, the narrative connotes spatial navigation, itineraries that transgress what he calls the “concept city,” or the strategically planned urban landscape. While we may not claim to spatialize by our “walk” through Street View (a claim De Certeau makes about the physical acts of everyday practitioners), we nonetheless travel through virtual space-time encountering endless provocations that stimulate endless storylines.

The physical world – like Rushdie’s Ocean – could be framed as a database or a “collection of items in which the user can perform various operations: view, navigate, search.”8Manovich 1999, pp. 219. Like the Ocean of the Streams of Story, our landscape contains endless “story currents” that have yet to be uncovered. But unlike our embodied presence in the physical world, Street View collapses space so we can start the story in Manhattan and migrate to Mumbai, crafting new ways of connecting such places through stories that are prompted by the momentary Street View capture. This expansive sense of accessibility extends to the question of authorship, allowing “users” (or “everyday practitioners”) to participate in story creation and reimagining the physical shape of the world. In addition, the neutrality of the Street View capture and the vastness of its coverage offer opportunities for each “user” to endow place with value and meaning.

In The Language of New Media, Manovich suggests the early navigable games of Doom and Myst “present the user with a space to be traversed, to be mapped out by moving through it.” Street View likewise presents the user with such a space, where the narrative emerges from the particularities of a specific itinerary. In other words, movement through space yields the narrative, not predetermined characters and events. Manovich relevantly elaborates on his discussion of games: “In contrast to modern literature, theater and cinema, which are built around psychological tensions between characters and movement in psychological space, these computer games return us to ancient forms of narrative in which the plot is driven by the spatial movement…”9Manovich 2001, pp. 245-246. These gamespaces become spaces of wonder and exploration, yet it is important to remember that behind the scenes are the almighty algorithms that predict any possible combination of actions and have coded every inch of space. This, then, leads us to important questions of whether Street View is itself entirely “open” or, like every database, limited by particular agendas – in this case the agenda of one of the world’s largest technology corporations. As many authors have suggested, Street View is by no means “neutral” or truly “democratic,” yet it inspires the “narrative hunger” that keeps us coming back.10In their book Softimage: Towards a New Theory of the Digital Image (2015), Ingrid Hoelzl and Rémi Marie trace the “algorithmic turn” that structures new media. Their chapter on Google Street View and “the Operative Image” provocatively suggests we, as users, both control experience yet are simultaneously under the control of the program. Ross Gibson additionally traces the possibly imperialist and capitalist qualities of Street View’s expansive reach.

As a medium or vehicle of creative reinvention, the building of narrative from Street View might be enriched by the discourse around “world building.” “World building” is the cinematic practice, initially born out of the genres of science fiction and fantasy, of designing environments from which narratives or stories emerge, rather than the conventional process of designing an environment that supports the prewritten script. The fabricated world is primary and the characters simply support the world, but the narrative again derives from the exploration of that world. In Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation, Mark J.P. Wolf describes:

Worlds, unlike stories, need not rely on narrative structures, though stories are always dependent on the worlds in which they take place. Worlds extend beyond the stories that occur in them, inviting speculation and exploration through imaginative means. They are realms of possibility, a mix of familiar and unfamiliar, permutations of wish, dread, and dream, and other kinds of existence that can make us more aware of the circumstances and conditions of the actual world we inhabit.11Wolf, MJP. 2014. Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation. Routledge, London, pp. 17.

While clearly entirely fabricated worlds such as Oz (the “first transmedial world”) and Minority Report (2002; the first commercial feature-length film to use world building) provoke curiosity, desire and dreams, Street View presents “a mix of familiar and unfamiliar” scenes and provides a frame through which we see the familiar world in a new light. Its momentary captures of sociospatial information provide other forms of provocation and imaginative stimulus. Rather than begin with alien worlds to generate stories, with Street View we can use the wonders and curiosities of what exists to inspire exploration and the creation of new realities, new “situations,” new narratives, new storyspaces.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Cosgrove cited in Corner J 1999. Recovering Landscape: Essays in Contemporary Landscape Theory, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, pp. 117.
2. Manovich, L. 1999. ‘The Database as Symbolic Form,’ Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, 5/2, pp. 80.
3. Weinbren, G. 2007. “Ocean, Database, Recut” in Database Aesthetics: Art in the Age of Information Overflow, V. V. Bulajić (ed.). University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
4. Rushdie cited in Weinbren 2007, pp. 61.
5. Weinbren 2007, pp. 66.
6. Certeau 1984, pp. 93.
7. Ibid., pp. 129.
8. Manovich 1999, pp. 219.
9. Manovich 2001, pp. 245-246.
10. In their book Softimage: Towards a New Theory of the Digital Image (2015), Ingrid Hoelzl and Rémi Marie trace the “algorithmic turn” that structures new media. Their chapter on Google Street View and “the Operative Image” provocatively suggests we, as users, both control experience yet are simultaneously under the control of the program. Ross Gibson additionally traces the possibly imperialist and capitalist qualities of Street View’s expansive reach.
11. Wolf, MJP. 2014. Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation. Routledge, London, pp. 17.

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