Google's Barge Provokes Wild Expectations

A mysterious barge stacked with shipping containers is docked at a pier on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay. It's owned by Google but Google isn't revealing the reason the barge is there. The barge has captured the imagination of people around the globe.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

There is a mysterious barge docked in the San Francisco Bay area. It's stacked with shipping crates. And this much we know, it's owned by Google. Google claims it's just a party boat. The buzz on social media is that it is something more than that. KQED's Aarti Shahani reports.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: You can't spot the Google barge from the waterfront in downtown San Francisco. You have to drive over the Bay Bridge, to Treasure Island, and hunt for it.

(SOUNDBITE OF HONKING CAR)

SHAHANI: Excuse me sir, sir. I'm trying to find the Google barge. Do you know if that's it, over there?

Ellery Crawford is kind enough to redirect me.

ELLERY CRAWFORD: Three blocks down, take a right all the way to your right-hand corner, and you'll see it right by the bridge.

SHAHANI: It's the afternoon rush hour, but Treasure Island is a ghost town. So in case I can't find more help along the way, I ask Crawford for a visual.

CRAWFORD: It's just like a big square, sitting in the water. Big, white square. You'll be surprised at what you see. You won't be able to get that close, though. They have it kind of cordoned off.

SHAHANI: After a few more turns and wrong turns, I finally get to Pier 1, the northeast corner of Treasure Island, and see it, about 200 feet behind a barbed-wire fence. She's a square boat with a flat bottom, four stories high, covered in scaffolding.

(SOUNDBITE OF OUTSIDE NOISES)

SHAHANI: I turn off my ignition, race up to the water's edge and think: This is it?

The Google barge has over 5,000 Twitter followers, and has provoked wild speculation. Everything from the plausible, like a server farm or showcase for Google Glass; to the improbable, like a place to hide Edward Snowden, if he ever makes it out of Russia; to the highly unlikely. like a time machine.

In this sense, the Google barge does what so many great works of science fiction do: It keeps us guessing and exploring possibilities.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BLADE RUNNER")

HARRISON FORD: (As Rick Deckard) She's a replicant, isn't she?

SHAHANI: In the 1982 dystopian classic "Blade Runner," for example, Rick Deckard, played by Harrison Ford, has to separate humans from their machine replicants. And to his surprise, the replicants themselves don't know their true role.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BLADE RUNNER")

FORD: (As Rick Deckard) How can it not know what it is?

RICHARD THIEME: The Google barge is a metaphor for all of our fears and wild speculations and anxieties.

SHAHANI: Richard Thieme is the author of "Mind Games," and a commentator on technology and culture.

THIEME: It has reached proportions that are probably a marketer's dream.

CRAWFORD: Thieme says Silicon Valley struggles with a contradiction. On the one hand, technologists here yearn to be stateless, free of government. On the other hand, they're making sure we can never escape from the watchful eye of Big Brother, and many Little Brothers.

THIEME: We've lost that wonderful sense of going out to sea and being free. Because if you take the Google barge out into the Pacific Ocean, you'll find that you have a GPS. There's no way to escape now.

SHAHANI: And it's probably just a matter of months before you can find the mysterious Google barge on Google Maps. Thieme says the idea of the Google barge embodies contradiction.

THIEME: A boat, a sea-going vessel would be an image of freedom from constraint. That's one dream. But Google itself, it draws a different kind of projection, a Frankenstein projection.

SHAHANI: In the 1970s, a tycoon docked a barge in Mountain View near today's Google headquarters. He claimed it was to mine manganese from the ocean floor. But in fact, it was a top-secret CIA mission to mine nuclear secrets from a sunken Soviet submarine.

Today, the data race has replaced the nuclear one, and Google is part of the data industrial complex.

For NPR News, I'm Aarti Shahani in San Francisco.

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