The Friday Fillip: Image Atlas

In reading about Aaron Swartz after his death, I came across a website/program, Image Atlas, he built for his friend Taryn Simon, as part of an art exhibit. It’s simplicity itself: using search terms of your choice, you call up the top images from Google in a wide variety of countries. The images are displayed in strips, one above the other, so that you can see at a glance how countries differ in their use of graphics on the web. (I should not that of course your search terms are translated into the languages of the countries you’re querying.) You can select target countries from among almost sixty choices.

cuba_clownMischievously, I searched for [mcdonalds] across all countries and got the run of sameness I’d imagined—with some exceptions: Cuba, for example, offered different results, including this rather malevolent-looking “clown.”

It’s interesting to try to find search terms that cause variety among “national” responses. For example, [beauty], which you might have supposed would be a little locally-determined, threw up a depressingly large number of photos of glamorous women’s faces, showing, one might say, how widespread it is that women bear the projection of beauty in society. Russia was different, interestingly, with a sunset and peacock. Other outliers were photos of camels, a castle, Fidel, and someone I think might be an actor.

[food] : Denmark showed a run of Mad Magzine covers, and, alarmingly, Somalia reported “no images.”

[law] : amid the many scales of justice far too many gavels in places that have no need of them.

Search for your name and see the strange things that happen.

It’s perhaps worth noting, while we’re on images, that Google Image is rolling out a new way of displaying results that it says should be “faster and more reliable.” (It shouldn’t affect Image Atlas, I think.) You’ll be able to preview sets of images without having to be sent to the pages on which they were originally posted. How website owners will feel about this “deracination” I’m not sure.

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