Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Exploring Google Streetview - Brooklyn Bridge Then, and Now

It's Cool - But Is It Ethical?

My curiosity in Google Streetview was first raised a couple of years ago when I saw a small car with California plates and a camera spinning around on its roof driving up and down the streets of my neighbourhood here in Ottawa. Expecting to see myself on the net I kept checking, but, I never appeared. Apparently, this latest incursion of Google hasn't yet extended into Canada.

However, it certainly covers the U.S. Want to check out where you went to college oh so many years ago, or perhaps re-visit that vacation you took? Fly over and zoom in, surreptitiously. No one will know you are watching. (Then again, perhaps "they" will, whoever "they" are. More on this issue further down the page.)

This morning, then, I decided to go for a drive in Google "Streetview" and explore the streets of Lower Manhattan. I began my journey using an old photo I took of the Brooklyn Bridge back in 1970 as a starting point. I wanted to see if I could figure out, at least approximately, where I was when I snapped the shutter.I took this shot while on a "field trip" of The Big Apple organized by my Urban Geography class from Queens' University. I could recognize the Brooklyn Bridge, but, did it look anything similar today, I wondered? Not about to organize another field trip, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to use "virtual" reality to help me answer the question.

This is what I found:

View Larger Map

Thirty eight years later, the roadway is essentially untouched, with the same concrete barricades. It seems more people friendly, however, with cyclists and pedestrians enjoying the view. Gone is the derelict abandoned dockyard look. Massive roadway signage, though, is blocking the previously open view of the Brooklyn Bridge, and office towers now dominate.

A fascinating aspect of Google "Streetview" is that if you put your mouse over the above photo, you can use the controls to move around 360 degrees, left right, or up and down, progress along the street or go back simply by clicking on the arrow. Can't do that on my old photo!

This morning I watched an interesting BBC piece on Google. They discuss the corporate philosophy of promoting innovation by encouraging employees to devote at least one fifth of their time to pet projects which may not necessarily "go anywhere". Perhaps they could start collecting dated photos and video and put them together in a sort of "timeline" through the ages.
Want to see New York in 1900, they ask? Click here! Then again, perhaps Toronto's Union Station or its Highway 401 "bypass" during the 1950's would be more interesting to you.

This of course begs the question; Do we really want to be seen, everywhere? Or, the corollary, do we really need to see everywhere? This is simultaneously cool, and scary. Lots of questions that most of us never visioned we would ever be posing. Is this the Orwellian future that we thought was impossible? Or, is this open access to virtually limitless information the dawning of a new age of populist empowerment? Who gets to see what information? Who gets to decide what to collect, what to keep, and what to share? Is the information world flat, or are there multitudes of hidden, (and not so hidden) barricades to data?

I and many others wouldn't be asking these questions if Google hadn't launched this, and other projects. That, in itself, is stimulating. But, what will the outcome be? How do we ensure ethical behaviour in the use of these technologies? But then, who gets to determine the definition of ethics?

To what extent might Google get to define ethics? Should they? "Don't be evil", the motto of Google proclaims. It "is tailored to the popular image of the company - and the information economy itself - as a clean, green twenty-first century antidote to the toxic excesses of the past century's industries."(1) But, how green is it? As has been noted in such publications as the Economist, every time we click the "search" button a Google server takes another sip from the energy straw. In 2006 American data centers consumed more energy than American televisions. In 2005, as Google prepared for the ever increasing demands for power to feed their server farms, they concluded a deal at The Dalles, Oregon (site of a significant hydro-electric power source) with local officials that included access to federally subsidized energy and other tax breaks. This one server farm will consume enough energy to power 82,000 homes. According to IDC, a market-research firm, America alone has more than 7,000 data centres. And the number of servers is expected to grow to 15.8m by 2010—three times as many as a decade earlier. The EPA estimates that data center power consumption will double by 2011.

Perhaps, then, we need to better understand the full cost of seemingly limitless computing power. Ginger Strand, in a March, 2008 Harper's article offers this conclusion:
As the functions long performed by personal computers come to be executed at these far-flung data centers, the technology industry has rapturously rebranded the Internet as "the cloud". The metaphor is apt, both for our foggy notions of a green web and for the storm that awaits a culture that squanders its resources.
Youtube, and searches for American Idol (the top search on Google News in 2007), powered by the energy grid. Is this an ethical use of a dwindling resource? Would some ethicists consider it evil? How would Google or any of their cloud computing competitors respond?

Google is proud to point out that their business model is different. They seek to promote computing in the cloud that is based on server based software that is "free" to use. While it is true that users such as you and I are forking over less cash to install software than we did in the past, we are now subject to Google's advertising based business model. As we know, the purpose of advertising is to promote consumption. That is how they get paid. And so, the consumption cycle increases. Any thoughts on how this will play out? I guess somehow, they just think that we can continually increase our consumption, and the wheels can keep spinning. They may want to consider the words of Kenneth Boulding:
Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.
Perhaps we should include technology gurus in this list of believers. Consumption growth needs to be reversed. How do we turn the tide? Is Google interested in the answer to that question?

And yes, I know, that with every keystroke and click of my mouse, I am part of the problem. My hope is that in some small way, these actions can also be part of the solution. And, of course, perhaps Google is as well. Time, as "they" say, will tell. The final question then for this post is:

Do we have enough time to wait for the answer?

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