Google Street Theater

Italy vs. Google–from Street View to street theater?
by Edward Moyer
October 23, 2010

Is Google’s Street View about to become a global forum for street theater?

It might be headed in that direction, if Italian officials get their way. According to a report, Italy has demanded that Google start giving people in that country three-days warning, via radio and newspapers, as to when its Street View cars will be roaming the stradas collecting images to plaster all over the Web.

The demand, picked up by PC Magazine from a report in La Stampa, is hardly surprising. As my colleague Chris Matyszczyk has pointed out, the Street View cars have captured plenty of strange imagery–dead bodies in Brazil, barfing Brits, ale-addled and outhoused Aussies. Not exactly stellar PR shots for the local tourist board or chamber of commerce. (And, as Matyszczyk has also noted, the Italians seem especially touchy about their worldwide reputation, even going so far as to target an innocent iPhone app for suggesting that–gasp–people might actually associate Italy with… the Mafia.)

Then, of course, there are the personal privacy concerns. I’m not sure I’d want to be known around the world as the Drink-Sick San Franciscan; I might forgo a night on the town if I knew the Street View crew was due (or at least find a convenient rock under which to crawl). And as most of us know by now, Google’s data-collection practices when it comes to Street View have not always called to mind the company’s no-evil-allowed manifesto. There was the little incident of Wi-Fi spying, and, just this week, a revelation about the collection of passwords and e-mail messages.

True, there are solutions other than Italy’s. Germans, for example, can opt out and have their houses blurred by Google. But I think the Italians are on to something, and I’d like to see their suggestion adopted around the world. Street View has already become the inadvertent agent of street-theater-like moments. There was the case of the dead girl who wasn’t, and the adventure of the horse-headed human. And there have been more-intentional hacks [Editor’s warning: This link might irrevocably warp the psyches of the little ones]. Imagine, with three-days notice, what we, the tech-traumatized public, could concoct.

Why, even now I can hear the gears turning in the collective head of San Francisco’s storied Cacophony Society. For years the group has staged guerrilla theater and culture-jamming pranks, including its locally famous Breakers to Bay affair, in which Cacophonists dressed as salmon infiltrate the annual Bay to Breakers Marathon and run the wrong way–upstream as it were. Imagine what they could do to Street View. And then there’s the Burning Man crowd. Who knew so many streets around the globe were frequented by naked blue people?

Alas, there would no doubt be a downside. It wouldn’t be long until Madison Avenue caught on–what an opportunity for product placement! (The ad crowd, in fact, has already pilfered the salmon pranksters.) Still, money-grubbing aside, I hold that the benefits might outweigh the costs. In addition to theater, there’s the potential for activism–a protest march that winds down every street on Earth. In fact, such protests have already been waged–against Street View itself–albeit on a humble scale [Editor’s warning: This link reveals a hand gesture that might irrevocably warp the psyches of the little ones]. Imagine that modest statement amplified a million fold. There’s already a “Moon Amtrak” day. With three-days notice, could Google be far behind?