A mystery — and technology — to join east and west

When you hear something you don’t understand, the natural reflex these days is to resort to a web search to learn what is going on. But what if the thing you are googling turns out to be a Google barge on the Portland waterfront that Google does not want you to know about? Hmmm…

Turns out you can still learn a lot by following the spidery threads of the web.

About three weeks ago, a tug towed a big barge into Rickers Wharf Marine Facility on the Portland waterfront piled high with what looked like — and turned out to be — a four-story-high  stack of shipping containers welded together with narrow slits that could be … windows, cooling vents or what? Peter Vigue, CEO of Cianbro, which owns Rickers wharf, and who is known for leading innovative, never-been-done-before projects such as building an offshore drilling rig at its Portland wharf, was “not at liberty to discuss the project.”

It turns out the company that hired Cianbro to complete the interior of the new barge is the company that wants to make all the world’s information available to everyone all around the world, except for its own. But these days secrets are getting harder to keep.

A week after the barge arrived in Portland, information began leaking out that Google owned the mysterious barge structure and another identical one in San Francisco, causing the company to issue a press release that said, “Although it’s still early days and things may change, we’re exploring using the barge as an interactive space where people can learn about new technology.”

Because my wife and I had just returned from visiting two of our sons and daughter-in-law in San Francisco when the barge story broke, we were perhaps more than usually sensitive to the digital divide between those living in the dazzling silicon light of the West and those of us clinging to the inscrutable East. The great American essayist Edward Hoagland famously wrote that it’s essential for Americans, in their 20s, to figure out if they are easterners or westerners because the cultures are so different.

We spent five wonderful days constantly amazed at the vast cultural distance between Maine and California. A few years ago, after our oldest son — a computer game designer — moved to California, he called me to report that he had been there two weeks and was concerned he had not yet received a job offer.  I told him to hang in there; it’s a tough world. But then he had three job offers after another two weeks. His wife, our daughter-in-law, works for an urban forestry company that develops innovative ways to keep city trees alive (really?), while launching a new blog on life’s daily challenges as a 20-to-30 something.

Our other son is an architecture graduate working in the warehouse district of San Francisco designing (I kid you not), “interactive space where people can learn about new technology.” The company he works for combines expertise in both design and engineering, and has developed software and hardware components to repurpose industrial robots towards creative ends. The engineering wing of the studio, Bot & Dolly produced much of the cinematography on the new Warner Brothers movie Gravity, and continues to develop a new genre of camera work you could almost not imagine. So maybe the mystery barges will unite us — East and West.

Through a Freedom of Information Act request, the wire service Reuters determined that the shipping containers on San Francisco and Portland barges will house a 13,276-square foot studio space, along with a rooftop deck and catwalks. Google’s information package suggests that, when finished, “this curious and visually stunning structure … will complement its surroundings … with decorative sails that are reminiscent of fish fins.” The Portland barge will sail down the East Coast and be part of a small fleet of luxury event spaces that are designed to be disassembled and transported by barge or train to other locations.

I can just hear the Cianbro guys on the Portland barge, who must have all signed non-disclosure agreements, saying to themselves, “This isn’t the waterfront your father worked on.”

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Philip Conkling

About Philip Conkling

For the past 30 years, Philip Conkling served as the founding publisher and senior editor of Island Journal and The Working Waterfront at the Island Institute in Rockland.