ESSAY- Too much: Is it time to erase our Google caches?
On the Internet, somebody does know you're a dog. Google, to be exact. And it has the pictures to prove it. The ominously helpful high-tech giant has introduced a service called Street View in Las Vegas, San Francisco, and several other visually intriguing cities.
Now, armchair Peeping Toms everywhere can enter a specific address and see multiple photographs of the location– along with any unsuspecting bystanders who happen to be in the camera's eye when Google's surveillance vans roll past. Some of those immortalized include a man skulking into an adult bookstore, a woman who was having a bad-thong day, and a guy scaling an apartment building's security gate in a less than forthright manner.
Naturally, such unexpected imagery has proven controversial. And, indeed, what does it say about our culture when you can't break into a building with some expectation of privacy anymore?
For years, we've shrugged off the relentless scrutiny we torture celebrities with as the price of fame, but now we're all Paris Hilton: Even our most throwaway moments can end up as entertainment for millions if they're embarrassing enough. Google has democratized recreational stalking.
The company's officials seem surprised at the outcry over Street View, and it's no wonder. Archiving and analyzing our most intimate and embarrassing search requests, combing through private gmails– it has gotten so comfortable in its role as recording angel that any concerns about the breadth of its omniscience must seem downright silly. That time you sprayed Febreze on yourself instead of taking a shower and ended up with a terrible rash that was so itchy you spent all day searching the web for an antidote? Google remembers. Your chronic late-night prowls for female blood elf bukkake? Google has a record of each and every search, and plans to keep this information until 2038. Google knows you better than your spouse– better than your therapist even– and now you're worried about some candid photos on public streets?
It would also be easier to condemn Google's creepy intrusions if Street View's gotcha! snapshots were at least half as revealing as the pathological self-disclosure on display at MySpace. But if it's hard to summon much grief for the death of public privacy when every new laptop comes equipped with a webcam, can't we at least shed a tear for the demise of mystery, loss, disposability?
What's grating about Google– and what its Street View project illustrates so vividly– is its nutty compulsion to render the universe as searchable data. Sure, having easy access to pictorial evidence of Ashlee Simpson's nasal evolution makes the world a better place, but do we really need a detailed visual record of some crummy alley in Denver?
And let's hope Google never figures out a way to archive every instant message either. One of life's great virtues is the transience of all things– especially the transience of memory. Our facility for forgetting the past means we may keep repeating it, but it's also what keeps us sane, hopeful, and open to the possibilities of Spider-Man IV, isn't it?
In the Google universe, even the most trivial cultural artifacts are kept on life-support forever. Whatever happened to pulling the plug and letting go? Most books should go out of print. Rock songs should have the lifespan of houseflys– let them buzz around our consciousness for a month, then sweep them under the rug of history! Blog posts deserve no more chance for long-term survival than the average spermatazoa. And just because it is technically possible to depict every square foot of the United States in splendid panorama, is there a compelling reason to do so?
Our present is too much with us. Our past is the houseguest that won't leave. Anti-depressant prescriptions have been rising in exact relation to Google's growing presence, and no one makes the connection. But how can we be happy when Google won't let us forget our failures and mediocrity?
Every day for the rest of his life, infotainment journeyman Pat O'Brien will have easy access to an audio record of his drunken efforts to seduce an acquaintance's voice mail message. Fifty years from now, Alec Baldwin's grandchildren will be able to hear PawPaw calling Mom a thoughtless little pig. Google isn't the only entity preserving these hideous moments like prehistoric insects caught in amber, of course. But it is the infinite museum that makes such relics instantly, eternally, damningly accessible.
Greg Beato is a freelance journalist who has written for Spin, The Washington Post, and many other publications, including his own Web site, Soundbitten.com. This essay first appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.