It’s Earth Day today. While we’re busily appreciating the natural world, it’s a good day to recognize that we’re a part of it. Even the least green urban corner is part of the natural world, because we human animals built that habitat from things we found lying around on and in this planet.
The current documentary series “Human Planet” (created by the BBC and Discovery Channel) is a spectacular reminder of that. This morning I happened on another one — something so completely engrossing that I put an insane morning on hold for 45 minutes to swim in it, and now to tell you about it.
In 2007, writes Montreal artist Jon Rafman, “Google sent out an army of hybrid electric automobiles, each one bearing nine cameras on a single pole. Armed with a GPS and three laser range scanners, this fleet of cars began an endless quest to photograph every highway and byway in the free world.”
Consistent with the company’s mission “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” this enormous project, titled Google Street View, was created for the sole purpose of adding a new feature to Google Maps. Every ten to twenty meters, the nine cameras automatically capture whatever moves through their frame. Computer software stitches the photos together to create panoramic images.
The result is an unimaginably vast collection of snapshots capturing not only those highways and byways, but candid humanity, going on its fascinating, sad, ridiculous and beautiful way, along and upon those roads. That the Google camera snaps with dumb, unconscious regularity and that most of its subjects are unaware of it makes Google Street View a reality show that dwarfs any other on that obscenely misnamed genre of television.
Now here’s the time-sucker: Rafman has created a website gallery with scores of the more surreal, honest, or captivating shots that these little nine-eyed reality-catchers have recorded — a parade of moments:
Of course one of the interesting elements here is random variation (the Google camera snapping away) acted on by decidedly non-random selection (Rafman, and now me, selecting our favorites). Artificial selection, that.
If these fascinate you in any way, you must go to his site to see them properly. I’ve reduced these in size to fit my margins. But learn from my mistake: don’t dare do it until you have some serious time on your hands.