Thursday, May 10, 2007

A Google Image Search vs. Reality

For those seeking images of everyday life through a Google image search, little will be found. Tourist, stock, or commercial images, along with completely irrelevant material, will instead dominate. Such images reinforce thoroughly inaccurate conceptions of what our world looks like - meaning they also distort and disguise the real social processes that are going on. The "revitalization" of a city will be trumpeted with images of a few gentrified blocks, while the surrounding areas languish in misery. Increasing inequality is offered as a progressive force, as if a rotting society can be refurbished in tandem with an increasing poverty and misery of the working class.

The images we are shown of our society are of great importance to how we understand it. Google image search (GIS) claims to be "the most comprehensive image search on the web" From my experience it enjoys great respect; in particular I know plenty of artists who use it extensively as a resource. To show how dangerous it is to uncritically accept this resource, I’ll provide the visual results that Google will gather on places I know. My goal is to see pictures that provide a truthful and comprehensive look at these towns and cities.

If one searches for "Wilmington, Delaware" this first image is from the state webpage, and is so small that it is useless. The second working result is this:

But this isn't even Wilmington! It's actually Richmond, Virginia! The next image result is also somewhere else - Cleveland, Ohio - but shows a boat perhaps registered in Wilmington. Good start!

To clarify, this is what the interstate looks like at night in Wilmington. The muck in front is a marsh polluted by remnants from former industries, complemented with the beauty of a polluted sunset.

Postcard historical images of Wilmington and maps fill up the first 20 results; only then is there even a generic skyline few. The image about is result 26. As far as GIS searches go, this image is astounding: it shows everyday life of the working class. Searching the next 20 pages of results will bring up nothing similar, and other cities I've searched have nothing like this at all.

There are certainly no pictures of a huge public housing complex the city destroyed in winter of 2005-2006.

There are no pictures of the overcrowded Gander Hill prison, though thousands in Wilmington have had to experience it directly or indirectly.

Piles of trash and abandoned factories won't be found either.

All in all, a GIS search for Wilmington shows little of what it actually looks like. How about Baltimore?

Those photos are all from the first page of results, and all show the exact same thing: the tiny, tourist heavy area called the Inner Harbor. Delving into the results further shows hardly anywhere else - yet Baltimore has a population of 640,000 people! Where do they live, what do they do? Why have over 300,000 left since 1950?

Large sections of Baltimore are devastated, with acres of industrial land lying in ruins and entire residential areas left only with abandoned row houses. None of this can be found in a GIS search, though in Baltimore it would be impossible to ignore. For more:

Perhaps the smaller city of Petersburg, Virginia fares better.

This is "historic Petersburg," a small area where the old and historic buildings have been restored. Everywhere else, they are instead old and decaying. This restored area is lauded as the rebirth of this small city. It's an incredible fable; and any brief visit to Petersburg would show it. Even ignoring images, and just looking at social and economic statistics - how can an area improve if nothing improves the conditions of the working class?

Nearby "historic Petersburg" is the main commercial street, South Sycamore. At 5pm, this man is promptly closing up one of the few restaurants around. Scarcely any other store is open.

And why should other stores be open? Bus service ends at 5 pm too!

But back to the "real" Petersburg found through a GIS search.

I took a picture of that mansion as well.

You won't find images of the enormous, crumbling Seward Luggage buildings that are right across the street from that mansion, though. Currently they are being renovated into "luxury apartments." It seems likely that the few large houses around here were for the owners and top layers of the company

If that is the case, these are the houses just a few blocks away for workers. It's typical for Petersburg and so many other cities; old, small, in need of maintenance, or boarded up completely.

Also nearby: 5 huge concrete piers (two out of the picture) left to stand awkwardly after CSX railroad dismantled the steel portions of this railway trestle over two decades ago. The building beside them is connected to Virginia Union University.

I could find no images on GIS of this inactive Brown and Williamson cigarette factory, despite the fact that it dominates the landscape of several city blocks quite close to downtown. More about Petersburg:

Moving on to Richmond, Virginia. GIS gives the same typical, cliche and useless results. One was already seen, the first image of this post. It shows downtown Richmond, with the Federal Reserve building, Wachovia Towers, and characteristic long, empty highway bridge. Someone has also added starlight filters to all of the overhead highway lights. Here's some alternative images:

Public Housing near the Leigh Street bridge. A GIS for "public housing Richmond Virginia" finds absolutely nothing of use in the first ten pages of results.

Over a hundred apartment units, abandoned, in the northside of Richmond. I unintentionally found a similar situation in Southside recently as well.

A boarded up elementary school, in the northeast of Richmond.

Bus stop on Broad Street. Daily life is almost visually non-existent according to GIS (or TV.)

Someone who sits a bus stop most of the day, several days in a row, for whatever reason.

GIS will find plenty of images of pets. Not this kind though.

GIS certainly does not bring up images of people working. Not even a janitor whose worked 17-21 hours a day, several days a row, and has to clean the court during halftime of a soldout basketball game.

Only to handpick all the trash in an 8,000 seat sports center after the game.

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Blogger Clare is Reading! said...

Thank you. You always caption so well.

Here you provide a much-needed display of the differences between "virtual" reality and reality itself.

7:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You don't seem to have a clue how Google images works. Google analyzes the text on the page adjacent to the image, the image caption and dozens of other factors to determine the image content.

It's not Google's fault that citizens of the web choose to use "idealized" images to portray a city. They just display what they find.

8:39 PM  
Blogger Scott said...

Actually, I do know that it works that way. That's why lately I've been labeling and caption all of my photos with the most detailed information possible, to insure that they are easy to find through a search. So far it hasn't worked. I've used several examples, some very detailed, and haven't been able to find them at all through an images search.

I would assume (would you know?) that the images are also ranked according to popularity. On that assumption I've made sure to look through the entire search when I'm looking for my own examples, but nevertheless, they are not in there at all.

This is not a post to explain that Google is doing something sneaky, rather, I simply intend to point out that the results obtained - which many people use extensively - are pretty miserable. And yes, this has alot to d with what "citizens of the web" themselves choose to post and upload. Some photo-sharing sites have remarkably different results though, like flickr.

10:22 AM  
Anonymous Leigh said...

Your pictures always gets me thinking and one of the reasons is like you stated that these images are nowhere to be found. They're easy enough to see when just stepping out into the real world. Makes you think the country depicted in the TV and movies was something else entirely.

4:09 PM  

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