The Stockton Google Barge: How It Could Be Used for Good

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Photo: Sara Bloomberg/KQED

Even Port of Stockton Director Richard Aschleris seemed ambivalent the morning of March 6, 2014, when Google’s barge, having been tugged there overnight, began leasing space from the Port for more than $10,000 per month. He said that the incoming barge was both a big deal and not a big deal because the port had housed sizable ships before. But do the letters on these other barges spell out the household noun and verb for internet browsing?

Google’s barge, a four-story wonder fashioned from recycled shipping containers, is indeed a big deal for Stockton. A Q&A section on directs interested parties to view the barge from afar at Dad’s Point or via boat by Stockton Deep Water Channel near Light 43. All vantage points are distant; under no circumstances can the general public enter the vessel.

Feel free to stare, but it’s best to keep expectations low. After all, the Google barge previously located in Portland, ME was dismantled and sold for scrap; documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act indicate that work on Google’s Stockton barge was halted when the Coast Guard raised concerns about fire safety. And the vessel fled its original home at Treasure Island when the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission said Google didn’t have proper permits to build there.

The most common story abut the Google barges is that they were to function as floating showrooms for Google Glass. Yet there’s been talk that Google Glass might never really take off as a product. You wouldn't know it based on the whimsical sound bite  a Google spokesperson delivered last March when the ship migrated to Stockton: “It’s been a busy six months for our barge and it’s grown tired of all the attention, so we are moving it to Stockton where it can have a break, enjoy the city’s delicious asparagus and warmer climate, and get a bit of rest before its next chapter."

Speaking of asparagus, as of last summer, the Stockton Asparagus Festival will no longer be held. The closure of the 29-year-old festival has something to do with money, and this isn’t shocking given that the City of Stockton itself has filed for bankruptcy a few times now. The story of failure isn’t one that either the city or festival can suppress.


Google, on the other hand, has more latitude.  Like it did with its Portland, ME barge, it can build a mystery and then decide that maybe it’s not actually worth continuing to build.

Whether it’s the story of fire safety concerns or the unclear future of Google Glass that is the truest here, Google has every right to dismantle its barge and never let people inside. But it wouldn’t be the most creative or, dare I say, socially responsible thing to do.

Here are some (serious and not so serious) alternatives:

- Make the barge a semester-at-sea for college students; get tax breaks from the government; help young professionals pay off debt.

- Become  a gym for the Coast Guard or some other water-bound entity.

- Become a technology or maritime museum and bring revenue to a struggling city.

- Use the space to train disaster-preparedness workers.

- Create a safe space for upper-crust earthquake evacuees to do their Googling and social networking.

- Dedicate at least one of its four empty floors to educate the public about the Ebola virus.

- Rent the vessel, on the cheap, to the government as a polling place.

- Transform the space into the venue of a good swap meet for bikes or technology or nerdy ideas.

- Host a childhood education center on site that would brand Google into young hearts and minds for life.

- Become a launching pad to Mars in case things get too hard in Stockton or the Greater Bay Area. (Zealots like Robert Zubrin shouldn’t be the only ones with the means to leave.)

These proposals vary in plausibility, but they’re still better than folding after fire safety concerns. Google is too creative and wealthy not to give us more story than that.