The Anonymous Gods Of Google Street View

Does a statue deserve the same privacy as a human? Google’s algorithms seem to think so.

When one of Google’s ladybug-like Street View cars goes a-roaming, it inevitably passes all sorts of people walking down the streets. What keeps these bystanders anonymous is one of the search giant’s trademark algorithms, one that examines every photograph for human faces and then blurs them out. But Google’s algorithm doesn’t necessarily distinguish between human faces, celebrity faces on billboards, or the statues of gods. They’re all blurred as if they had the exact same privacy needs.


The blurred faces of statues captured by Google Street View cameras are what French artist Marion Balac seeks out as part of her ongoing project, Anonymous Gods. To Balac, the project highlights a rather curious phenomenon of the pre-Singular age: both humans and robots alike have a problem telling each other apart.

Balac says that the Anonymous Gods project started when she decided to go on a virtual vacation to Las Vegas. Using Google Street View, she wandered along the Strip until she noticed that the face of the Luxor’s Sphinx was blurred out. “I was fascinated,” Balac says. “Just by having its well-defined face blurred, the Luxor’s statue looked almost indistinguishable from its model, the time-eroded face of the Great Sphinx of Gaza.”

From there, Balac wondered if the faces on the side of Mount Rushmore were blurred too. But the artist was disappointed: as it turns out, Google Street View’s algorithm uses qualities like color and shininess to determine whether or not something is a face that needs to be blurred. But while this makes Mount Rushmore a tricky monument to find a blurred image of, it turns the ubiquitous golden statues of Asia into a pantheon of anonymous gods to explore.

“What fascinates me about the project is that it examines two of our society’s biggest issues–privacy and religion–from a robot’s unique perspective,” Balac tells me. “Without exception, Google’s algorithm treats every human face it encounters as data, while ignoring its social, cultural, or religious importance” That leads to errors in judgment that might be scary to a technologist, but reassuring to the technophobe, who at least can see that Google can be tricked.

[h/t: The Creators Project]