Thursday, May 29, 2008

Walking the Google Streets

I took my first steps on Google Streets the other day. Like a billion other people, I had already experienced the extraordinary sensation of flying over countries, cities and hoods I knew well. The zoom function on Google Maps must be one of the most emotionally charged tools online. When I was young, the only person who got to do what any kid can routinely do on Google Maps was Superman himself! Now Google is right down to street level in many U.S. cities. In Street View you can click on any of the blue-lined streets on the map and a pop-up window takes you on a drive along that street and around the block. This amazing hi-tech experience was achieved by the very low-tech and commonsense method of cars with 360 degree cameras on their roofs (and GPS) systematically driving the streets on your behalf. For those of you with an iPhone, this takes you into never-get-lost-again-in-your-life territory.

What fascinates me is that this amazing technology returns us to classic navigation by landmark - “walk past the green house and turn left at the school”. Then you simply check out in real-life what you see on the screen in front of you. Kinda. There is, in fact, a curious time lag that Google Maps has introduced into our lives. A digital memory trace. Places and cities change all the time, and with Google Maps you can sometimes walk history into the present. As you pass that newly-built condo, Google Street View is showing you the house that was there when the condo was still in blueprint. The old car that has finally been towed out of the neighborhood is still on Google, blocking the entrance to the kids' park. Maybe this is the virtual Everywhen. The zone when the past and present harmonise.