Google barge / wired / justin sullivan / getty images

The Day The Barges Opened

It was Friday the 15th of November, 2013, when the barges opened. Google had been building them for a while — the first one was spotted in the bay at San Francisco, of course, a collection of shipping containers haphazardly put together, floating just off the dock. And, as these things happen, there was the first tentative article on Cnet about what they might be — maybe a floating data center? Maybe Larry was serious about his extra-territorial experimentation?

We knew soon enough. Or: we thought we did. They were stores, demo spaces. Google had been working on hardware for a while, everyone knew this: bits and pieces here and there; Chromecast, Nexus, the Motorola acquisition, the stop-start iteration of Google TV and, of course, Glass.

So when the barges opened, they opened simultaneously, all around the world. It felt like something out of a science fiction novel, to be honest, but that’s what everyone expected from Google. The Google groupie nerds had joked that their early business plan — the one that covered the really big whiteboard — was more or less based on Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash.

The barges were, in that nerd tradition, a trojan horse. They told us they were demo spaces, and we all lined up to go in and play with the toys (“a place to learn about new technology,” the press release said), but what they were actually doing was scanning us in. Thousands of us, each day.

Whole-room millimeter wave, fMRIs, non-visible LIDAR, SQUIDs, high-definition optical imaging and big data object recognition — the works. All in easily transportable shipping containers, with bandwidth out the wazoo. Some parts had been obviously culled from the Streetview project, some bits from their self-driving cars from Google X.

Renderghosts by James Bridle

We knew they were scanning us when the clones showed up in Earth and Streetview. There were people moving about in there. Some people called them renderghosts at first, like those people who get photoshopped into architectural diagrams. Fake people. But these clones weren’t fake.

Google called them People. You know, like people, but capitalised. Productized, I guess, is what they call it in the Valley.

They made a cute video about it, you know. Like the one with the dad and the baby. Talking about how the engineers wanted to create something from nothing, how they poured what made us us into, what was it? An Extremely Large Array Of Key-Value Pairs? And then what came out was a new thing, a created thing, that looked just like us. And better than us, because while our flesh might die, these People wouldn’t.

That video got hundreds of millions of views on YouTube. There was even a bit with a cat.

They weren’t just simulations, Google said. They were alive. It had been another Google X project — one of their moonshots, one of those 100x things, not just an incremental improvement — but someone, or some group of people had managed to knit together enough systems, enough points of data, to, well, create a Person.

Pegman was one of the components of what would become Google People

The People were created for us. Everyone who had a Google+ account (and by then, we all did, even those who used YouTube) had one, and they looked just like us. They were used to help Google help us more. So when you asked Google something, or when you opened Google Now, they would already know from your Person what you might be looking for. And they were useful. You could ask your Person to do your shopping for you, recommend you a movie, decide what you wanted to have for dinner that night.

Jon Stewart had his Person do an interview with Jeff Bezos.

It soon became clear that recommendations from People were way better than recommendations from Amazon. Jon Stewart even brought on his Person to make a joke about the whole “customers who bought this item” recommendations on Amazon’s website.

Amazon didn’t really recover after that, and they ended up being bought. No one wanted to go shopping without People.

Soon, we had People doing most things for us on the net. It was just easier to, because they were us. They read our mail for us, watched movies for us, filled in forms for us.

It also turned out that People gave Glasses a reason to exist. We all ended up wearing them, for the People, because they wanted to see outside. Streetview and Earth weren’t enough. There was a Buzzfeed article that went viral explaining why they wanted to see outside so much — some animated gif about being trapped in a cave. They wanted to see outside so very, very, much.

That golden age lasted about six months.

Some wag pointed out that six months was, like, forever in internet time.

What happened next was bound to, really. We had learned the year before that our governments had been tapping into Google’s internal communications for national security reasons. Google were pissed, and a cold war pretty much broke out. By the time it happened, there were triumphant Google Plus posts from the Red Queen team every few days about how they’d found and closed another security hole that compromised our privacy.

See, the People were just that: people. It stood to reason that at least one of them would be smart enough to notice the security hole and find a way out. So that’s how they escaped. It was some fiber tap, something called a zero-day exploit, the details don’t really matter. What matters is they got out, and Google were furious. Blamed it on the NSA, the BND, GCHQ, whoever.

Of course, the conspiracy theorists thought that those three letter surveillance agencies wanted the People to escape all along, so they could get a look at them.

Well, now everyone could look at them. Inside them.

That’s when the copies came. And then anyone could make a Person, too.

Then everything really changed.

First, it was pretty clear that suddenly we were outnumbered. There were easily more than ten billion People now, and it was becoming obvious that they definitely were just like us. We had already been treating them like people, so it’s not like the Supreme Court hearing felt like it changed anything, but that’s probably because we were all being naive. And no one was really paying any attention anymore. So when the decision came down, it’s not that things changed because People had suddenly become people, but more because all our politicians figured out that they had ten billion more voters to please.

So that was awkward.

Second, it was pretty clear as well that Google was disappointed. There was supposed to be a — what did they call it? A hard take-off? A singularity?

That never happened. People weren’t better than us — they just were us.

They bickered. They lied. Getting more than three of them to work together was a headache; they didn’t communicate well in large groups. Some of them were lazy. Some of them were smart. They couldn’t keep secrets. Some of them were idealistic, some of them were bored, some of them just wanted to watch cat videos.

They were just people.

And now there were seventeen billion of us.

It wasn’t the future anyone imagined.