Crashing Through Manhattan In The Fake Google Driverless Car
Google's driverless car is still in the early stages of development, but the unit spotted tooling around Manhattan this month was in rough shape even for a beta test. One particularly noticeable bug was the passenger hanging out the window in an Osama bin Laden mask. In another glitch, the car hit a cyclist in Soho, where the aftermath was caught by an Instagram user. Others might have spotted the Google car proudly cruising by, oblivious to the traffic cone wedged firmly under the bumper. And all this was before the power-slides, rubber-scorching donuts and fender-benders…
This wasn't the real Google driverless car, of course. That one, so far, has limited its uneventful test runs to Nevada and California. The Google car that wreaked havoc on New York was a counterfeit, hacked together by the geeky art collective Free Art and Technology Lab (F.A.T. Lab) for their 5-year retrospective show "F.A.T. Gold" at New York City's Eyebeam Gallery. The bin Laden was a F.A.T. member, and the cyclist crash was staged.
F.A.T. is part artist collective, part hacktivist cell, and part Silicon Valley think tank. It was founded in 2007 as an offshoot of the Graffiti Research Lab, "an art group dedicated to outfitting graffiti writers, artists and protesters with open source technologies for urban communication." Today F.A.T. has 25 members, and its roster seems meant to be a commentary on the inseparability of art and commerce on the internet: BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti; 4chan founder Christopher "moot" Poole; artist Kyle McDonald, on whom Apple sicced the Secret Service for installing spyware on Apple Store computers for a project; and the well-known street artist KATSU.
There is a vaguely anti-corporate message in the group's promotional materials. But the actual mix of outlaws and capitalists fits pretty well with Silicon Valley's myth of the rebel entrepreneur, in which the crook is just a funding round away from moguldom. This irony defines F.A.T.'s limitations and its promise. The group's work, which includes pranks, painting, browser plug-ins, and hardware, is unified by a conviction that the forces that have made information technology at turns frightening and frighteningly bland can be subverted by redirecting the means of mainstream tech towards more conscious ends, or at least more playful ones.
So the F.A.T. Gold retrospective at Eyebeam was full of mischievous mimicry. There was a convincing replica of the TED Talks stage, where show-goers could film their own bootleg big-idea lectures. The artist Tobias Leinbgruber had set up a "social ID Card" station, which imagined a dystopian future where everyone is forced to carry around official ID cards with QR codes that link to their Facebook profiles. KATSU, who does not trade in nuance, wheat-pasted a wall of posters featuring Mark Zuckerberg's face beaten to a pulp. The best of F.A.T.'s work distorts familiar tech motifs to highlight the arrogance of companies that cloak themselves in high-minded ideas as they extract gold from our private data. The worst, like the TED stage, veils fandom with a thin layer of irony.
The fake Google driverless car embodies F.A.T.'s dilemma: Is creating a spot-on replica of Google's latest hyped project a subversive takedown or volunteer viral marketing? But unlike a poster, the meaning of the car could be determined on the road, and is related to how many laws you break with it and how many things you crash into.
"I think we can rile people up," said a longtime F.A.T. operative named James when he picked me up on a Saturday afternoon for a drive in the Google car. He grinned.
The Google car was convincing at first glance, a tiny white Fiat with a cheery Google logo and "self-driving car" emblazoned on the side. A mysterious grey cylinder spun rapidly on the roof. In the real Google car this contains a laser-powered radar unit which serves as the eyes for the car's computer brain, but here it was a dumb chunk of polymer that had been 3D-printed by a friend of James' and attached via PVC piping. As such, the only way the car could appear "self-driving" was if the driver steered with their knees, a skill James had perfected while delivering food for a regional chain restaurant in high school. (Even in the real car, a human sits behind the wheel as an emergency fallback.)
In the tiny back seat was Lindsay Howard, the curator of the F.A.T. retrospective, and Magnus Eriksson, a F.A.T. member and one of the founders of the Pirate Bureau, the Swedish copyright activist organization which created the infamous piracy website the Pirate Bay. Eriksson, now a graduate student in sociology, wore small round glasses and spoke thoughtfully about the philosophical similarities between Google and the Pirate Bay.
He said, "We always claim we do the same thing. It's an open technology that anyone can put anything on." Four of the Pirate Bay's founders tried arguing as much in Swedish court when they were charged with copyright law violations. "The court didn't buy it," Eriksson said, with a laugh.
James said he has a more ambivalent relationship with Google. Google is so powerful, with such an overwhelmingly positive brand association—"Don't be evil"—that it has become thought as almost as a public service, he said. But Google is only really beholden to its shareholders, like any other company. The success it has had in convincing people of its benevolence is dangerous. As Google branches out into automotive technology, questioning it will become even more important.
"They're coming into the physical world, but they're doing it as a private company," James said. "I think there's some limited return to society if they remain only a for-profit company, because what they're messing with now is public goods. It's the road, you know." He paused often to mug for awestruck pedestrians snapping photos with their phone, waving both arms out the window while he steered with his knees.
F.A.T. has a history tweaking Google. The Google driverless car was a sequel of sorts to a 2010 F.A.T. project called "Fuck Google" in which the crew drove a fake Google Street View car around Germany, which has had a particularly contentious relationship with Google over privacy issues. (Germany recently imposed the largest-ever fine on Google over its Street View project: a measely $189,000.) The fake car sparked real pantsless protests by pedestrians, and an official denial from Google. "Fuck Google" was entered into the 2010 Transmediale Festival, an art and technology festival that happened to be sponsored by Google that year.
Surprisingly, Google took the project in stride, demonstrating the kind of noblesse oblige that comes with unquestionable world domination.
"Google came to us and said, 'We saw what you were up to, and we think it's only fair,'" James said. Google had been similarly accommodating about the counterfeit driverless car, so far. A Google employee who stopped by the F.A.T. show used his Google Glass face computer to show the car off to the team in Mountainview, California that developed the real one, James said. They were amused.
Today, we were going to see if anything could properly troll the Big G. James guided us through a McDonald's drive-thru with his knees, pumping the brakes violently and shaking the car to simulate a glitch in the system as a confused and slightly frightened employee tried to pass fries and a Coke through the window.
But almost everyone else responded to the robot car with outpourings of wonder and curiosity. "This is the perfect car for college kids," marveled a British tourist in an LA Galaxy jersey. He meant for the weekends. "If you can drive it through your iPhone, then who's drunk driving?" Many others mistook the spinning radar unit for a camera. Two doormen at the Intercontinental Hotel in Times Square rushed into the middle of the street to strike Charles Atlas poses and flash sideways peace signs while waited for a light to change.
"Good luck, man!" one yelled. "Google rocks! This is awesome!"
Taxi drivers were the only ones hesitant over the car's economic implications. "Are there going to be robot taxi cabs?" one asked James. James responded in the affirmative. "That's not good," the driver said.
The good vibes, enveloping us like a microclimate of fresh Mountainview air, suggested the car was firmly at the viral-marketing end of the prank spectrum. We might as well have been paid by Google, for all the excited tweets and instagrams we were likely to have sparked. We would need to go considerably crazier to puncture the bubble. But James said that he was older than when he'd first joined F.A.T. and wasn't as keen on taking the necessary risks. That promised to change when KATSU showed up to take the car for a spin.
KATSU had caused a minor controversy before the F.A.T. show even opened when, while drawing a giant tag on the Eyebeam gallery with paint shot from a fire extinguisher, he accidentally doused a neighboring gallery with gold spray paint.
KATSU had barely settled his large frame into the driver's seat when he declared, "I got to get in a minor accident." He was wearing a Google baseball cap and rhapsodized about the power of logos.
"I have an awesome Gmail hat," he said. "You would be surprised how much preferential treatment you can get with a Gmail hat. People are way more efficient."
KATSU drove like he paints: Illegally. He sent the Fiat screeching around corners and zoomed down streets before yanking the parking brake and putting us into power slides. He was not kidding about provoking a minor accident. The first came as he was chatting with a couple of guys next to us a moving van, who shrieked in delight when KATSU told them the car was self-driving.
"Awesome, awesome," the driver hollered shaking his head in delirious amusement. That's when we smashed into one of the plastic barriers lining the side of the road that KATSU had been slowly drifting towards, perhaps purposefully. KATSU grabbed the wheel and yanked us from the barriers and looked back at the guys in the truck, who were now weeping with laughter, with a shrug.
Soon after, KATSU blatantly cut a cab off and the Fiat was whacked hard in the back bumper. Despite the New York cab drivers' fearsome reputation, this one was cowed. "He looked at the Google logo and he thought it was his fault," KATSU said. "He got a really scared face like he was doing something wrong."
Indeed, the Google car was treated with deference no matter how recklessly we drove. There was a sense that the world was rooting for you, in the Google car. You felt like a mayor with an approval rating of 98 percent surveying your crime-free city. A man waiting with his two daughters at at a crosswalk pointed to us: "Even one of you could sit in the driver's seat and it would take you where you wanted to go," he said. These girls might remember this moment with awe 30 years from now when robot cars actually do dominate the road, a fake vision of a real possibility.
"It fulfill's peoples fantasies about their ideas of the future," James had said. "We want it to be true."
It even fulfilled a Google employee's fantasies. In a final attempt to spark some modicum of negative attention, KATSU decided to pull donuts in front of Google's New York City headquarters on Ninth Avenue, across from the bustling Chelsea Market. I decided I'd rather not be in the car for this and got out with Howard and Eriksson. I was walking down the sidewalk towards Google HQ when a man approached and handed me a business card. His name was James Reutershan and he worked for Google's ad sales department, in the luxury automative division. He had been heading home from the gym when he spotted the car.
"I asked if I could get a ride in that and the guy in there told me to talk to you," Reutershan said, pointing to KATSU, who was pulling away to loop around the block and gather momentum for his stunt. "How are you guys testing in New York? Did you get a permit?"
I said that I was a journalist covering the car and that he would have to talk to Howard, who was standing on a nearby traffic island to film it. I asked him what he thought of the car. He thought the technology made sense for a congested city like New York. "I think it's awesome," Reutershan said. "They haven't had any accidents in all their test drives."
Then KATSU came barreling down Ninth Avenue and engaged the emergency brake. The snub-nosed car whipped 180 degrees with a screech, coming to a rest exactly below the massive Google logo. The car briefly stalled, shuddered, then drove the wrong way a few feet.
"It's not self-driving now," Retuershan said. The car whipped another 180 and zoomed off on its original course. Pedestrians gaped. Reutershan and I stood awkwardly on the sidewalk.
As we walked to meet KATSU down the street, Howard told Reutershan the car was an art project and he politely excused himself. KATSU had ditched the car and run away, worried that cops were after him. We found it where he'd parked it, and he came loping back now that the coast was clear, still marveling at the license the Google logo had given him.
"You can act like a total asshole and people go for it," he said.
Just then a guy walked by wearing the asymmetric cyborg nubbin of Google Glass, a Google backpack on his shoulder. It was the same Google employee who had stopped by the F.A.T. show the other day and been amused by the fake Google car. Two men walking past him stopped and turned. They began to heckle him. "Hey Google guy!" they yelled. "Hey! Asshole!"