• 01.18.12

Life, The Universe, and Everything Visualized in Google Image Search

Sebastian Schmeig’s mesmerizing video depicts a Google’s-eye view of everything from the Big Bang to the end of time.

Life, The Universe, and Everything Visualized in Google Image Search

Recursion basically means looping a process back on itself so it uses outputs as its own inputs. If you’ve ever looked at yourself receding into infinity when you stand between two mirrors, you’ll get the idea. It’s a fertile concept for programmers and philosophers alike. (Googling the term results in a dorky-but-deep joke.)


But recursion doesn’t always just result in infinite repetition. Some deep thinkers, like Douglas Hofstadter, think that recursion is the key to consciousness itself. A guy named Sebastian Schmeig wanted to see what would happen if Google Image Search looked at itself recursively–starting with a transparent .PNG, then taking the top search result and searching again on that, etc. The results are mesmerizing:

What’s incredible about this video is how it takes a “meaningless”, dumb-pipe process of symbol manipulation and somehow generates a short history of the universe. It’s all there: the Big Bang (searching a blank image spontaneously outputs views of the oldest stars in the universe), the condensation of matter into finer structures (vague views of deep space morph into clusters, then galaxies, then planets), the sudden–in cosmic terms, anyway–explosion of life and human awareness (the sudden appearance of faces that overtake the video), which is itself quickly overtaken by tools, artifacts, and mass-produced products (including, tellingly, guns). Seems like Google Image Search reads Adbusters!

But it doesn’t stop or get predictable from there. Tangible items give way to brands and icons, which then give way to abstract mathematical symbols and visualizations, and then a spontaneous equilibrium of images of Google itself–as if the ghost in the machine is stirring with self-awareness in a strange loop. Is this Google’s way of saying that it sees itself as the culmination of cosmic history, with its human creators as a mere flash in the pan?

If so, it certainly has a self-deprecating sense of humor — because the self-images are soon replaced by a devolving series of scrawled internet meme-pictures (most likely spawned from the internet’s seething subrational id, 4chan). If the global digital hivemind does “wake up,” it’ll apparently soon implode in a schizoid reverie of /b/-tard in-jokes. “Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” indeed.

Anyway, that’s what I read into this four-minute burst of 2951 images at 12 frames per second. But even if you don’t want to get all deep and stuff, it’s a great visualization of the funky, unpredictable things that can happen when a seemingly-simple process repeats itself enough times. You’ll never think of recursion the same way again. (Ha, get it? Another dorky pun!)

[via[/url]; top image Richard Payne/University of Wisconsin]

About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets.