While browsing Google Earth or searching an address inside Google Maps, you’ve might’ve seen something like the above image. It happens from time to time. Though Google’s 3D representation of the world around us and the ability it gives us to travel the globe in a swipe of the trackpad or screen usually work without a hitch, every once in a while you see a landmark or a piece of infrastructure that makes you tilt your head.
Whenever Clement Valla sees something like that, he saves it. He keeps a collection of these images at a site called Postcards from Google Earth where he explains that these odd-looking, almost surrealist representations of the world around us aren’t a glitch.
“They are the absolute logical result of the system,” Valla writes in an introduction to the site. “They are an edge condition—an anomaly within the system, a nonstandard, an outlier, even, but not an error. These jarring moments expose how Google Earth works…Google Earth is a database disguised as a photographic representation.”
In fact Valla’s explanation of why these images occur within Google Earth gets pretty in depth. In a longer piece on The Universal Texture—the system Google uses to map the Earth—he explains why we and Google’s algorithms see the world so differently:
We see space in the aerial photographs because of light and shadows and because of our prior knowledge of experienced space. When these photographs get distorted and stretched across the 3D topography of the earth, we are both looking at the distorted picture plane, and through the same picture plane at the space depicted in the texture. In other words, we are looking at two spaces simultaneously.