Laughing and crying my way through the new Google Photos

My grandfather is dying. The cloud is alive. Our future is bizarre

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I started using Google Photos after it first launched last week. I was immediately impressed for all the reasons that Casey Newton mentioned in his review: simplicity, intuitive navigation and search, ease of use across devices, and incredible utility as a backup solution. I’m a longtime user of iPhoto and Time Machine, and an early adopter of Flickr, but this service seemed to promise peace of mind, secure cloud storage for my media memories.

The feature that compelled me to upload all my photos in full resolution, however — despite fears that I Am The Product — is that Google Photos offers an experience that delights. The service delights by making it easy to search my memories for “family,” “Falmouth,” or “Christmas 2012.” It delights by making it easy to explore my photos using the People, Places, and Things filters, without me having to do any work to tag or categorize. As a product designer married to an avid photographer, I appreciate how easy and intuitive all this is.

But most importantly, the service delights by offering me presents. As photos upload, Google Photos is processing old pictures I’ve forgotten about, including images that I’ve assumed were unremarkable or superfluous, and assembling them into collages, animations, and experiences that I wasn’t aware I wanted. “Assistant” offers me its creations and politely asks if I want to dismiss them or add them to my library. Like an opening of Timehop, these little creations can be surprising and lovely.

It’s hard to appreciate this feature until you experience it. I keep eagerly checking Google Photos notifications on my phone, excited about what Assistant has crafted from my digital trail. I find animations of my children playing on the grass, a collage of my wife giggling, a trip to Austin rendered as a slide show.

A series of selfies compiled into a living GIF. I am staring back at me.

* * *
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Last weekend I flew to Massachusetts, my first visit since my grandmother’s funeral last October. I spent Saturday with old friends, celebrating our 20th high school reunion. (We’re all pretty much the same, just older and slightly wiser. We drink less.) And I spent Sunday with my parents in our hometown, sipping coffee and walking along the harbor. We talked about my daughter’s first days at preschool, my job, and my sister’s upcoming wedding. Whenever my phone found Wi-Fi, photos silently uploaded themselves to the cloud. Occasionally Assistant offered a digital present.

On Sunday afternoon we paid a visit to my grandfather Grumpy at the assisted living facility where he’s had a room for several years. My grandmother lived there with him, before she passed. The nurses struggled to help Grumpy sit up in his bed, and to relax him with painkillers. When he greeted me by name and asked about my children, I showed him a picture on my phone. He tried to invite us to join him in the dining room for dinner, but the tumors in his brain scrambled his thoughts into hallucinations.

He’ll never see the dining room again. We told him he was a wonderful grandfather, and he cried, somewhat confused. He’s under constant nurse and hospice care now, after 99 able-bodied years (99 years!). I’m glad I was able to see him one last time. He'll be gone soon.

On Monday night, exhausted from a full weekend and long flights home, I sat down at our old iMac, and installed the Google Photos desktop uploader. Slowly, the nearly 500 gigs of photos and videos we’ve accumulated over the last 15 years began copying themselves to far-off servers.

On Tuesday morning I awoke to discover that Assistant had done something I hadn’t realized it could do: it had begun to generate short films, complete with soundtrack and transition selections, from bundles of presumably related video clips and photos.

My images are personal. They capture my life and my family, through good times and bad.

Assistant knows some of this.

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There’s been a lot of chatter lately about the risk that comes when algorithms meet our personal digital lives. It’s one thing for software to suggest an album or recommend an article I might like, but in the last few years we’ve entered new and potentially fragile territory as more and more of our lives move online.

Eric Meyer wrote about the inadvertent algorithmic cruelty of a Facebook "Year In Review" prompt that seemed to celebrate the death of his young daughter a few months earlier. In a hilariously honest review of his first 24 hours with Apple Watch, Matt Haughey expressed frustration at repeatedly encountering software assumptions that remind him of his mother’s passing and the difficult time that followed.

I woke up on Tuesday to find the following video on my phone:

Assistant made this for me. I’ve changed nothing.

* * *

Last October, after a long slide into Alzheimer’s and dementia, my grandmother Grace died at the age of 92. I flew back to Massachusetts for her wake, memorial service, and interment on Otis Air Force base. She was a nurse in the Army and an officer’s wife. I only took a couple dozen photos during that trip; it was a somber but beautiful fall visit back home, a chance for our family to join together and celebrate the life of a wonderful woman. I have my grandmother to thank for my sense of humor and, I’ve come to believe, my optimistic outlook.

I had forgotten that my six-year-old son Devo was running a race at his school in Portland on that very same day. My wife shot video as he rounded the track, and a few clips of Devo playing with my daughter.

Unlike with photos, I believe that videos on the iPhone 6 include no geolocation information.

Even so, Assistant put all these together, perhaps assuming they were all shot in the same place, and at the same time. Footage of my son playing with Legos and running laps are interspersed with photos from my grandmother’s funeral service and the restaurant where my mother planned a reception. And there’s grandpa Grumpy, climbing out of the car for the interment of his wife.

It’s all held together with a jangly, bittersweet soundtrack that’s somber but optimistic. You’d think that Google Photos would know better than to offer me this present, that it could identify the objects and elements common to a funeral service the way it can apparently identify "boats," "hats," or "fog." If the goal of your product is to delight, you'd best not miss.

My first watch of this video hit me emotionally in a way that’s hard to articulate. The film itself is a new kind of uncanny valley for digital artifacts: Assistant and its algorithms combined these clips in a way that no reasonable person would attempt. Ever. The result is surreal, random, creepy, sad, and oddly funny. It had to be a coincidence of timing that I had only just returned from visiting Grumpy on his deathbed. But partly because of that timing, this video present came at a moment when I was primed to appreciate it. Maybe it won’t be long before services try (and fail) to do this sort of thing on purpose, offering us narratives that highlight timely memories, or videos designed to fill anticipated emotional needs. My photos are still uploading.

I’ve played it over and over. And the message of the strange film that Assistant made for me is clear: my future lies with my young family, with my children and the things they build. Grace and Grumpy will both be gone soon. Death and loss are a part of life, and we all have to keep running, around and around, forward through the sun.

I saved it to my library.

Ryan Gantz is director of user experience for Vox Media.

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