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Ten of Google's most mysterious moments

On the utopian tech-titan’s sweet 16th we uncover what lies beneath those six rainbow-bright letters – from the bleakly beautiful to the downright terrifying

Do you know what day it is today? Let me Google that for you. It was on September 4th 1998 that Google – noun, verb, start-up and search engine – was first incorporated as a company by Larry Page and Sergey Brin. At first, they worked out of a garage; since then, the rise and rise of the techemoth has been unprecedented, universal and (for better or worse) largely unchecked. Apple, at its basis, has always sold hard products; Google, which spearheaded a revolution in trading on information alone, surely proffers something nefarious in its very building blocks. It has also coined a corporate language that wouldn’t be out of place in a sci-fi dystopian novel; there’s something about the thought of all those “Nooglers” reminding themselves (whisper it!) “Don’t be Evil” in the “Googleplex” daily that says ‘end of days’, isn’t there? But don’t let’s be Internet naysayers. Google is the North star of Web 2.0, and a shining force of the Internet Economy’s major players. Right. But what lies beneath? On occasion, Google glides from “Internet” to “internet”; from accidental leaks and glitches, to deliberate easter eggs and yet-to-be-solved mysteries, Google is increasingly revealing something of a darker layer of the Web within its world. Of course, Google could never be considered part of the mesh networks and darknets that a “Deep” internet connotes. But perhaps aspects therein are as ultimately unknown to us as that hidden web. Here’s our pick of Google at its deepest and darkest: those weird, beautiful and just plain bleak moments that reveal what lies underneath, around and between those six rainbow-bright letters. 

FLOATING GOOGLE

As Dazed reported in June, tech-firm gentrification has reached saturation levels in San Francisco, with displacement skyrocketing as rents continue to rise. When a mysterious barge appeared in the Bay last October, one was tempted to suppose that Google has pushed your average San Franciscan so far out of the city as to end up in the ocean. The barge, a large, half-finished structure moored to San Fran’s Treasure Island, was soon joined by a similarly mysterious barge floating on the opposite coast (outside Portland, Maine). What followed was months’ worth of speculation as to the purpose of the barges, with reports gaining traction that a Google Glass megastore was planned for these floating homes. Eventually, Mountain View confirmed ownership (in a vague way), only to reveal last week that the barges were going to be sold off altogether. Turns out it was just for the ships and giggles.

SPOOKY SELFIES

Forget Kim – the summer’s most notable selfie smash was hands down the spindly figure of the street view camera. “The Camera in the Mirror” is Barcelona-based artist Mario Santamaria’s Tumblr collection of the Google cam’s accidental selfies – those moments when it snaps its own reflection whilst documenting galleries for the Google Art project. Strange, beautiful, and a little sad, the screengrab quality and ornate, empty surroundings makes one think of a world without humans at all.

 

ZERG RUSH

Part and parcel of Google’s special brand of corporate jollity has been its use of Easter Eggs in its online domains – a phrase that, in itself, seems to recall the days of the web as an explorative, open space where hidden discoveries were far more innocent. Still good-weird as opposed to bad-weird is the (entirely deliberate) Zerg Rush. In gaming terms, Zerg Rush means when one is overcome by a huge number of weak opponents. Search “Zerg Rush” in Google and the little Os turn into attackers, which multiply and eat all the text on the page. You can try to make stabs at them, but eventually, they’ll always take over. See also: our current digital monopolies…

 

THE RIGHT TO BE FORGOTTEN – FOR NOW

Nothing if not generous, Google have now granted us the right to forget ourselves. Under the controversial “Right to be Forgotten” ruling from the European Court of Justice, Google have been forced to remove links on request about – well, about whatever we’d rather not have there in the first place. But now that the hubbub of the original ruling has died down – not least the clearly controversial divide between US/EU proceedings on the matter – the resulting system is more than a little weird. It is eroding at news journalism, with the concern prompted by the recent disappearance of certain Guardian articles being one example. Google, though clearly against the ruling, have appeared remarkably compliant with its lessons – or so we may think. By replacing removed searches with harsh blanket notices (saying that all name-based searches in the EU are subject to censorship), Google are angling to shock users, and presumably hope to stoke anger enough to encourage us to appeal the law en masse. The lesson?  Don’t try to play Google, cos they’ll play you harder. 

WHAT STREET VIEW CANNOT UN-SEE

From the Right to be Forgotten to the right to be remembered with dignity, at the beginning of this year a dead body was visible on Google Maps. The image of Kevin Barrera’s body, who was beaten, shot and left to die on the railroad tracks in Richmond, California some years ago, has since been removed from the images – but the issue it threw up reverberates through Jon Rafman’s 9-Eyes project. Here, the artist scours Google Maps for in-situ tableaus that are eerie, unsettling and altogether grim: child gunmen, a stop and search in action, and bodies in trunks.

 

WEBDRIVER TORSO

We just can’t resist a good Internet mystery. Take an 11 second video of blue and red rectangles moving at random, times that by 80,000 near-identical uploads, and you get the prolific output of YouTube user Webdriver Torso. The videos – nothing but rectangles and harsh sounds – have been uploaded at a furious rate since September of last year, prompting outlandish theories ranging from proof of alien contact to a post-Cold War spy transmission system. When the account was Rick-rolled in June, the gig was up – turns out, the account is simply Google’s automated system for testing upload quality. That doesn’t account for that single pesky Eiffel Tower video that interrupts the algorithm entirely. But hey, pretty lights.

GOOGLE DOODLES

Despite 2014 marking the declining dominion of the homepage – thanks a lot, er, Google – the search engine’s own homepage is still accorded some degree of reverence. We can probably put this down to the Google Doodle – the illustrated logo that mutates according to anniversaries of famous deaths, births and scientific discoveries. The very first Doodle was a little weird purely for signifying how excited the Google bros were to be heading to Burning Man – they incorporated its famous figure into their logo as a kind of BRB message to users. Doodles since then have grown more ambitious, and are, for the most part, totally on point. But when the design misses the mark, you can be sure that it will do so spectacularly. One such mystifying choice was the frankly tone deaf ‘favela’ Doodle this past June. It commemorated the World Cup with a cute illustration of a favela – pretty dodgy, considering the bloodshed, drug abuse and poverty that define these slums. For other Doodle misses, see: Women loving flowers because of their gender (duh), and what appeared to be an improvised bomb on Google Palestine.

GOOGLE FACES

Sometimes a Google mystery comes from the mothership itself – other times, it merely symbolizes an all-too-human projection of potential mystery. From the man in the moon to houses with smiles, finding faces in our surroundings comes naturally. Taking this urge and throwing it into outer space is Google Faces – Onformative’s independent search agent that hovers above the world to spot all of the hidden faces that emerge from the shapes created by rocky, textured landscape. Using face recognition technology and cross-referencing it with Google Maps, the results are startling. Maybe tech can lead us closer to Mother Nature, after all (although, for the most part, she appears to be frowning as she waves back).

SEARCHING POETRY

“Google writes poetry on subjects that people are truly interested in.” True, that – the autocomplete function on Google is based on people’s previous searches, after all. Google Poetics compiles the best of the bards of the search engine bar. Brutal, beguiling and occasionally plain dumb. Stanzafication optional. 

PIGEON PEOPLE 

In June 2013, a seemingly normal sidewalk in the suburbs of West Tokyo was invaded by a gang of half pigeon, half human hybrids – or, at least, that’s according to what the Street View bicycle saw as it cycled through those particular co-ordinates one day. Apparently, the Musashino district is home to an art school, which goes some way to explaining this surreal tableau. I’d rather keep the mystery alive by indulging my anthropomorphic inner-city animal fantasies - The Cat Returns, anyone?