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Google, God, and the public

posted by John D. Boy

Google Street View in PragueGoogle’s attempt to bring its Street View service to Germany has met with strong opposition. Given the country’s history, the opposition feeds off many Germans’ wariness of encroachments upon their privacy—a wariness that Jeff Jarvis has called “something nearing a cultural obsession.” In this vein, a leading newspaper commented that “Google knows more about you and me than the KGB, Stasi or Gestapo ever dreamed of.” Not least among those opposing the Californian internet giant’s service are the German churches. Several Protestant churches have registered concerns, including the largest of the Landeskirchen, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Hanover.

The churches raise a number of critical issues with Google’s service, which, once implemented, will make the cityscapes of 20 German cities available on the web. Aside from general concerns about privacy, an official of the Evangelical Church in Baden remarked that public space must not be commercialized. A council member of the same southwest German church summarized the theological motivation for resisting Street View: “The world belongs to God, not Google.”

While positioning themselves as defenders of privacy against Google, the churches will not be making use of the option to have their church buildings removed from the service’s panoramic images. “The church has an interest in its church buildings being visible as public institutions,” a church official remarked (my emphasis).

This raises interesting questions about the place of religion in Germany’s secular society. It also provides an interesting case study for the ways in which digital technologies potentially amplify what José Casanova captured with his notion of “public religion.” The churches become defenders of a certain notion of the public by pushing back against the ubiquitous application of technology and  insisting on theological grounds that the public should not become colonized by private commercial interests (“God, not Google”). At the same time, however, they can insert themselves into the public and gain visibility in new ways by embracing Google’s technological production of an urban public.

In a remarkable essay on Street View, Jon Raffman writes: “A street view image can give us a sense of what it feels like to have everything recorded, but no particular significance accorded to anything.” In Google’s framing of the public, the significance of different areas of human experience is (at least partially) up for grabs. This situation accords religious actors the opportunity of (re-)claiming public space. But how far can this claim go? Rafman writes, “In the past, religion and ideologies often provided a framework to order our experience; now, Google has laid an imperial claim to organize information for us.”

Perhaps Google has pulled off the ultimate god-trick, as Donna Haraway put it. The gaze of its cameras is the neutral gaze “seeing everything from nowhere.” Perhaps, then, in a sense, the world does belong to Google, not God.

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