Short Cuts

John Lanchester

Stendhal said that the novel was ‘a mirror that one walks down a road’, ‘un miroir qu’on promène le long d’un chemin’. Although this maxim is generally agreed to be a masterful summary of the realist project in fiction, it has always brought out a literal streak in me. How much would the mirror show? Wouldn’t everything depend on how big it was? Who would be looking into it? They wouldn’t have much of a view, would they? Is the novelist the person who’s carrying the mirror, or is she standing by the side of the road looking at the mirror, in which case isn’t that a bit passive, given that it’s presumably meant to be her novel? Would the mirror change angle, so you could see more of what was going on?

We can all relax. It’s now clear that Stendhal meant to say the novel is a bit like Google Street View. This remarkable service, which went live in 25 British cities on 19 March, allows the user to travel along every public thoroughfare, operating a camera which can be made to zoom in and out and rotate from side to side. Over the last year, Google has had a set of camera cars out roaming the UK, and the imagery from these cars is the database of Street View. The photographs aren’t live but they are extraordinarily detailed, and the fact that one can manipulate the camera, and move it at will, makes it seem like a piece of the future dropped down into the present.

The service isn’t new-new: it’s been available for various American cities since the middle of 2007. It’s been causing some controversy since its launch here, and from the non-scientific sample tests I’ve been running, it constitutes a Rorschach test of people’s attitudes to privacy and modernity. Most people my age and older instinctively dislike it. There seems to be something fundamentally not right about total strangers on the other side of the planet being able to look at a picture of my house. Younger users don’t see the problem: but then their attitudes to privacy are hard to understand, across the digital generation gap. The briefest look at Facebook or MySpace or Twitter shows a fundamental shift in how guarded people are about their private information: the younger generation really doesn’t seem to care.

The controversy so far has concerned the crop of images that Street View has so far collected of people throwing up, emerging from strip clubs and sunbathing in the semi-nude. The company’s policy is to wait for people to complain and then remove the images. It says that it’s only taking pictures from public thoroughfares, and that it uses software to blur the faces of individuals and licence plates. The first part of that proposition is true, but the second isn’t; in fact, it is so manifestly untrue that it makes you wonder what they can possibly have been thinking when they made the claim. Besides, the procedure of waiting for complaints and then stepping in has a certain recklessness to it. It might be entertaining to look at the now-ubiquitous photo of the man coming out of the strip club, and you might argue that he deserves whatever he gets; but it’s not necessarily without consequences for him, whoever he might be. As for the woman who had moved to a secret address to escape a violent partner, but was clearly identifiable on Street View, let’s hope her complaint was acted on in time.

The Information Commissioner’s Office and the Metropolitan Police Commission in 2008 both concluded that Street View didn’t breach any privacy or security rules, and it was on that basis that the company went ahead with the project in the UK. (Street View has also been launched in France, but since it’s illegal under French law to publish photographs of private citizens without their permission, I have no idea how they’ve got away with it.) It’s difficult to say exactly why Street View seems to be crossing a line: after all, people’s addresses are freely available via the electoral register. Adding a photo of someone’s house doesn’t compromise their privacy any further. So the sense of invaded privacy is finally hard to defend. Conversely, I can’t really see what Street View is for. Where’s the extra usefulness added to Google Maps? There are one or two cute features: the Tate gallery have signed up as a partner, so you can (for instance) view the settings of Turner’s and Constable’s paintings and compare them with the painters’ versions. That’s mildly diverting. The service offered by an estate agent, findaproperty.com, that allows you to view the location of properties for sale, and as-it-were drive round the neighbourhood, is more obviously useful. But given the scale of the resources involved, and the potential backlash of causing Google to seem an even Bigger Brother than it already does, I’m not sure I see the point.

One thing that Street View certainly does is underline just how aggressively Google is rolling out new products and services – a lot of them, as with Street View, poised on the margin between utopian and dystopian. A couple of years ago Google bought a company called Grand Central, whose project was to offer people a single centralised phone number. Things went quiet and it looked as if Google had laid a bit of an egg – as it has been known to do, since its acquisitions are by no means infallible. (Examples: the social networking service Orkut, the photo-editing service Picasa.) Then in March it turned out that Google has issued a beta version – that’s a trial version – of a product called Google Voice. The service offers features such as free conference calls and crazy-cheap international calls. But the big thing it does is give users a single telephone number which unifies all the user’s existing numbers, work and home and mobile. It takes messages sent to all of them. And then – this is the new new thing – it converts the messages into text, automatically, by machine transcription. These are then sent to the user in the form of an email. So all your numbers are brought together, and you’ll never miss – or be able to duck – a phone call ever again. You’ll be able to save those messages in perpetuity, and to search in them as text files. The same thing goes for text messages, which are also centralised and saved. Is that a vision of paradise, or of hell?

This utopian/dystopian issue is a constant theme with Google’s services. The big argument at the moment – too big to summarise here – concerns Google Book Search, which aims to scan and make searchable every book in the world; or at least, every book Google can get its hands on. The project has caused consternation in the publishing industry, and the bullish way in which the company is proceeding with it is disconcerting even to Google’s well-wishers: one publisher found his company’s forward catalogue for the next two years appearing in Google’s list: that’s books which haven’t come out yet, and in some cases haven’t even been written. The settlement of a lawsuit between Google and the Authors Guild et al leaves huge issues unaddressed – not least because, as Google makes clear, nothing short of a court order is going to stop it digitising every book in print. Google doesn’t accept that that constitutes a violation of copyright. But the company won’t even discuss the physical process by which it scans the books: a classic example of how very free it is with other people’s intellectual property, while being highly protective of its own.

This issue, in all its various forms, isn’t going to go away. Book Search, Street View and many of Google’s other offerings simply bulldoze existing ideas of how things are and how they should be done. I was highly critical of Gmail when it first came in, on the grounds that the superbly effective mail system came at the unacceptable price of allowing Google to scan all emails and place text ads. But I soon began using it, because it was free, and because it’s such good software, and because I frankly never noticed the ads. (The only exception was when I once sent an email remarking on the new trend for young men to wear post-ironic moustaches: if you haven’t noticed this phenomenon yet, remember where you heard it first. For the next few days the ad on my webmail page was from a company called moustachesrus.co.uk, offering 12 moustaches for £6. This, I found, raised more questions than it answered, the main one being, who buys a dozen 50p moustaches, and why?) Then about a month ago my hard drive suddenly crashed, and my backup, while it saved photos and music, failed to restore my work archive. I was facing a gigantic bill for a by-no-means guaranteed hard drive recovery, when it occurred to me that every piece I’d ever sent by email might, just might … and sure enough there it was on Gmail. A copy of everything I’d ever written for publication, and everything else I’d ever emailed too. It’s the kind of thing a big brother might do, help you in ways which make you feel simultaneously relieved and resentful.