PROBLEM 0018: Human Eyes and Google Eyes

In which the author considers the difference between his own eyes and googly eyes. In which a painting is thought about by both the author and the Google. And where those thoughts are compared for interest and accuracy and fun and ultimately lead the author to be glad he’s not a computer.


Our eyes are fruitful beasts. They receive images that attack the brain, activating synapses and associations and begin a cascade of thoughts that connects to our past lives, our hopes and dreams, our disappointments, our grief, our present situations, our desires. They activate an innate awareness of our humanity that we recognize only as a moment that is different from the rest of the moments in our day to day life. Something is happening, but it’s hard to say just what exactly.

Google has eyes, too. It roves bit by bit, pixel by pixel across the grid of a painting or picture and proceeds to match one bit to another. It engages in pattern recognition, compression, and calculations. It is a marvelous machine and it can do marvelous things. It can “look” at a painting and find other instances of the same painting elsewhere on the internet.

But when Google looks at an abstract painting, something interesting happens. It tries to make sense of it and find other images that resemble it. It extracts concrete meaning from the painting a thousand times a second and produces results that don’t definitively make claims—rather, the results say, “Is this it? Is this it?” Google is a blind magician trying to do a card trick.

Meaning is hard. The temptation to find meaning in abstraction is often too great, and many times I don’t even realize I’m doing it. And regardless of the subject/anti-subject, content, objects, or meaning of a painting, we all have associations that crop up seemingly out of nowhere when we look at a work of art. I don’t think Google makes associations. Its brain doesn’t make helpful or imaginative leaps.

Here’s an example of what I mean.




  1. Huh.
  2. Who bought this thing?
  3. That’s pretty damn yellow
  4. What’s that white bar doing there?
  5. Okay okay, maybe it’s in the technique.
  6. I don’t think there’s any technique.
  7. Who painted this? Oh, yeah, I’ve heard of him.
  8. This is crap.
  9. Focus on the colors.
  10. Yellow. So yellow.
  11. That’s more mustard-gold-piss than yellow.
  12. That house is wearing a bow on its head
  13. Is it on a hill or on a pig snout?
  14. No no no. Stop looking for things. How does this make me feel?
  15. It makes me feel like my toilet is dirty and I have company coming over any second
  16. Also, those reddish vertical lines are interesting. Slope away, come back.
  17. What’s this thing called anyway? Homely Prostestant? Sure it is.
  18. Can’t get away from the house and the pig snout.
  19. Unless the snout is a head. Could be a head.
  20. Nuts, that’s actually a woman or a clown standing behind their own footprints
  21. No no no, it’s nothing representational, stop it, Hischier!
  22. Okay. Hum to yourself. Hummmmm. Let abstraction be your mantra.
  23. I can already hear someone saying, “Just look it at it and let it be.” I can already hear my response…
  24. Ooh, neat, there’s a sloppy grid cut into the canvas. That might have taken some effort.
  25. Try being smart. Ahem. There is an extreme asymmetry (isn’t that redundant?) of execution, with some lines uncontrolled, others relatively constrained by straightness.
  26. Smartness sounds stupid on paper.
  27. Triangles are a big part of this painting, in a dominating sense and in a granular, subtle sense.
  28. That was better.
  29. The green interrupts the pee-colored nastiness with its own nastiness. Like a homely protestant.
  30. There’s an awful lot of effort put into whatever you’d call this stupid thing.

As a contrast, here are Google’s associations when I plug the image (no title, no attribution) into its “similar images” search function.



Oddly enough, Google doesn’t give me a house or a pig or a clown.

Sure is pretty, though.


Which cluster of associations is richer?

Which is more pernicious?

My long response to the painting may not have been pleasant, accurate, kind, or helpful, but at least it was something. Google’s response tells me nothing I didn’t already know. It gives me pictures and it gives me a lot of yellow. It is a rich tapestry of unique sameness never ending. And if anything, it’s a much more interesting image than the artist’s. Way to go, Google.

I like that I can barely escape my own associations and thoughts. I prefer my response, no matter how innocuous, how philistine, how uneducated, or how foolish. They are my thoughts. This painting belongs to me now, even if I don’t like it. I own it in a way the copyright holders, the publishers, the museums, and the computers will never be able to take advantage of. I can return to this painting whenever I want, or I can burn it on a bonfire every time I recall it. Over time my thoughts will mature, while Google’s will only become more or less accurate given the probable improvements in technology.

If we have algorithms in our brain, they are made of ants and honey and a million scintillating things.

NOTE. The painting above is Homely Protestant, by Robert Motherwell. I don’t like it. So it goes.