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Why CAPTCHA Pictures Are So Unbearably Depressing

They force you to look at the world the way an AI does

1) They’re devoid of humans

CAPTCHA images are pictures of the outside world, but it’s a world that is unsettlingly bare of people. This is likely for privacy reasons, which is a laudable motive on Google’s part. But it winds up making the pictures look totally postapocalyptic. Each CAPTCHA depicts a world blasted by a neutron bomb, where the objects survive but none of the people do.

2) The angles are all wrong

CAPTCHA pictures are often shot from extremely awkward angles — angles that we humans would never pick.

3) They’re voyeuristic

These pictures all give off the icky vibe that comes from a lack of consent. Nobody in the photos expected to be photographed. These images are thus all inherently voyeuristic. Worse, because they’re also incredibly bland, the voyeurism feels all the more sordid and vapid. As Todd put it …

4) They look like crime-scene footage

Google’s CAPTCHA images are frequently grainy and badly focused. This is likely because, as Vox points out, Google has gone through most of the easy visual-recognition training cases, where the pictures were clear and sharp. Now they’re stuck with the hard stuff, which tend to be pictures of terrible quality.

5) The grids on the photos are an alien’s-eye view of the world

When you get those CAPTCHAs that chop up a single photo into sixteen squares, the imposition of those crisp white lines feels so disconcerting. It’s an alien view of the world: Behold the riddle of human existence. What could it possibly mean? By asking us to identify elements of an image that are sliced into pieces — “Select all squares with traffic lights” — CAPTCHAs turn everyday reality into a puzzle that no normal human would ever think of as a puzzle.

6) There’s very little nature

Self-driving AI is worried about recognizing things in the built environment — stoplights, taxis, cyclists, fire hydrants, crosswalks. It doesn’t care about trees, or the fractal beauty of leaves, or flowers or birds or creeks or really any of the objects to which the human eye gravitates with delight.

I write three times a week about tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer for NYT mag/Wired; author of “Coders” and “Smarter Than You Think”