Google Street View has landed in Brazil, and its timing is probably no accident: it’s a momentous point in the country’s history. Latin America’s sleeping giant seems, at last, to be climbing into its proper place in the global pecking order: it’s an increasingly assertive diplomatic force that’s put the B in the rising “BRIC” countries and wooed the world to become the future site of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. All that means Brazil will be the focus of intense scrutiny over the next decade, no more so than in its cities, whose violent reputation might be the most jarring objection to the narrative that the country’s trajectory is is headed nowhere but up.
Such is the bilious stereotype of Brazil’s urban barrios that even intrepid street photographers often refrain from unsheathing their SLRs even a block or two from the most upscale streets or highly visited tourist attractions. For virtual investigators, armchair travelers and Firefox flaneurs alike, that opens up a lot of virgin territory to explore via Street View. Take one of Brazil’s most celebrated neighborhoods, Rio’s Ipanema. It’s renown worldwide for its beach scene, but also boasts largely blocks of rarely-documented inland avenues.
I’d pointed my browser only a few blocks from the the virtual beach, on a digitized representation of Rua Visc. de Paraja, when I made my first Brazilian Street View discovery: colorfully pink and blue intersections, which look like tropicalized versions of the scramble crossings common to the busiest corners of Tokyo. Coming across these flamingo-hued florescent bursts helped convince me that Street View might be as adept at validating positive stereotypes of a colorful, festive Brazil as it is said to have been in disproving negative ones faced by other societies — like South Africa, where Street View was also unveiled in time for a World Cup — which the media similarly allows to appear locked in a desperate struggle with urban violence and destitution.
But it’s important not to take a too-naive view of Street View, which, like any recording or imaging technology, inevitably somewhat distorts its subject. Street View’s format — static images taken from a slightly elevated perspective in the middle of the street, make it easier to disregard some of the country’s most persistent urban problems. That’s likely true for many of the developing countries increasingly cruised by Google’s cars. Via Street View, it’s simply easier to stroll (or rather, scroll) through what might otherwise be unease-inducing neighborhoods filled with less than friendly sights, sounds, and smells — and the often distinct impression of being unwelcome. For these very same reasons, though, the technology helps virtual visitors ignore or deny evidence of the root issues that lead to such shocking material and social divides.
Another, more explicit lapse distorts Street View’s portrait of Brazil in particular. Over the last few decades, many of the country’s urban migrants have clustered into the shantytowns, or favelas, clinging to Rio’s hillsides — some of them nestled right above exclusive and celebrated neighborhoods like Ipanema or Copacabana, its slightly less wealthy cousin. I searched Google Street View for Rocinha, a particularly notorious favela occupying a small valley between Ipanama and the even tonier seaside neighborhoods of Leblon and Barra da Tijuca, where Rio plans to concentrate many of its athletic events in 2014 and 2016. But while Street View’s vehicles plied streets that got close to Rocinha, and even imaged the blank walls of the dark tunnel that carries more fortunate Rio residents’ cars beneath it, the troubled barrio’s unofficial streets aren’t even fully charted by Google Maps and, as a consequence, were never pictured by Street View’s roving cameras.
Whether that’s a function of Google inadvertently rubber-stamping Brazilian government policy toward the favelas, the neighborhoods’ impossible geography of narrow streets clinging to steep hillsides, or merely the company displaying some understandable street smarts, the absence of informal settlements like Rocinha from Google’s virtual Brazil is unfortunate: if neighborhoods out of sight aren’t completely out of mind, the picture many have of them tends to be colored by the imagination, bred from stereotypes culled from brief and selective glimpses. What takes place in the favelas is often the stuff of wild, epic myth: few could forget the jarringly casual culture of violence depicted in the ironically-titled Rio gang film Cidade de Deus (“City of God”, which isn’t set in a favela but has come to influence outsiders’ perspectives on life in the city’s roughest neighborhoods nonetheless), or, more recently, the Tropa de Elite series, which has glamorized the government’s guerilla war against the slums’ highly entrenched and heavily-armed gangs.
Even in a Web 2.0 culture, those myths are largely preserved in selectively-exposed data from the field. Many online images of the favelas come from tour groups whose guides have bought safe passage from gang leaders. Unsurprisingly, these slum tourists are often criticized as voyeurs, and the documentation they bring back fetishizes the poverty they came to see. And when the favelas don’t conjure destitution, they bring to mind uncontrollable crime: YouTube is flooded with videos of favela firefights that look like footage smuggled out of Kandahar. True, Rio’s powerful gangs managed to shoot down a police helicopter mere days after the city was awarded its double-edged Olympic spotlight. But that was the exception that proved the rule: it was big news because it was so shocking and rare for such a thing to happen outside a warzone like Afghanistan or Iraq.
The impression of raw, unremitting violence feeds an appetite for unrestrained police action. Some evidence of this is clearly exacerbated in equally lurid media reports about the authorities, but not all: a 2009 Human Rights Watch report found that extrajudicial killings were a common punishment and peacekeeping remedy. The extremes of favela law enforcement are likely only exacerbated now that Rio is making a renewed push for security ahead of its decade in the limelight. Neither the police (who vow to wage “full scale war”) nor their critics (who worry about “occupation”) hesitate to use military vocabulary to describe these efforts; to each, the favelas are referenced as if they’re foreign territory.
But different data may create different possibilities for the favelas‘ future. This summer, the Spanish bank Santander opened a branch in Complexo de Alemão, a favela known for drug violence, after being convinced of its market potential by evidence of higher living standards and increasing numbers of residents joining the formal economy. That’s just the tip of the iceberg of the sort of investment the favelas could benefit from as a result of a slightly more objective reevaluation. Digital imaging, which so often dehumanizes its subjects, can, too, help demystify the circumstances of the unseen, and provide them with a form of dignifying exposure.
That’s not always true, of course. Not long after launching, Google Street View Brazil began attracting the wrong sort of attention — Street View-watching bloggers reported finding corpses laid out on the street or extensive crime scenes. But what bleeds always leads; the real question is how Street View will impact impressions of urban Brazil beyond the headlines. And over time, as the novelty wears off, Street View Brazil is likely to dispel the impression generated by such stories rather than propel them. Imagine curiously exploring the digitized streets of the Cidade de Deus. It’s not a favela, but a government-planned settlement, and its officially-mapped streets were imaged by Google, showing an impoverished but otherwise humdrum reality a far cry from the rancid gore of the film which takes its name. There’s plenty of traffic here, and commerce — it’s hardly high noon.
If Street View were able to pry itself safely into the favelas, it would be able to shed closer light on their everyday life there as well. Google’s automatically rotating Street View cameras capture the streets they roll down with apparent impartiality. They’re still biased, insofar as a still image can never fully represent a living place (in rare circumstances, Google also removes images users report as “inappropriate”), but far superior to individual photographers’ selective composition. What’s still missing from its efforts in Brazil is Street View’s usual comprehensiveness, which may have more than made up for its other flaws. Until its blank spots are removed, Google’s incomplete digital cartography will only help continue to inspire ungrounded fantasies — and unsettling consequences — just like the sea creatures and “here be dragons” on maps of old.
Tags: Brazil, Crime, Exploring the City, Google Street View, Informal Settlements, Poverty, Rio de Janeiro, Scramble Crossing