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Friday, 20 March 2009

Google Street View


After a year or so of legal wrangling, and watchdog pacification, Google finally released the UK version of their excellent Street View application. Providing 360 degree panoramas at thousands of points around the UK's streets, Street View effectively lets you tour the country's cities, peer into the nation's gardens and experience the true majesty of the Great British Public vomiting and urinating. It's a wonderful thing.

Actually, it is a wonderful thing. A massive accomplishment almost unparalleled in the history of photography. Think about it: Street View represents a unique historical document - a slice of life through much of the world's cities in the early 21st century. It has no agenda, no goal, no prejudice, no purpose other than an almost blind recording of life. In many ways, it reminds me of those old black and white street scenes from the turn of the 19th century: fascinating glimpses of people going about their business, largely unaware that they are being cast in historical amber; neither posed, nor artificial, nor contrived.

As such, you can find the whole range of human activities, from the mundane to the unique to the downright bizarre - fights, crime, love, every weave and stitch of humanity's peculiar tapestry. And because of this, Street View is a resource of incalculable worth for future generations.

Of course, the antagonistic British media fails to recognise and celebrate this. Instead, it prefers to amplify the almost vanishingly small minority voice of the Luddites who see only fear and threat in everything great and unique. People who are quick to assume that baser human failings will prevail and should be protected from at all costs. People for whom knowledge and enlightenment are lesser goals than the cocooned sanctity of their garden fence.

Do I believe that Google Maps will never be used for wrong-doing? Of course not - I'm sure that it will be employed by the world's ne'er-do-wells, whether it be to plot the theft of church roof lead, or to orchestrate an audacious terrorist event. But I also happen to think that this will happen anyway, regardless of whether Google Maps existed or not. Should we also ban atlases and compasses, back packs and cameras? Of course not.

Furthermore, I believe that the positives of such an undertaking greatly outweigh any perceived negatives. Imagine the educational potential of Google Earth and Street View. No longer are school children confined to books and second hand descriptions of the Colosseum or the Parthenon, or the streets of Gaza city or Mumbai. There now exists the potential to experience places in context, a richer learning experience than anything yet conceived.

Ultimately, I believe that surest way to combat the negatives that the Luddites foresee is to educate and enlighten, since there is no greater fuel for the fire of discontentment than ignorance. Isn't this a goal worth pursuing, even at the expense of our sex-shop privacy?

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