Monday, 29 November, 2021

Scitech Special

Internet maps for connectivity

When the ‘Street View’ service was launched in May 2007, it was touted as an opportunity for users to ‘quickly and easily view and navigate high-resolution, 360-degree street-level images of various cities across the world’.

Street View was initially conceived as a way to improve the accuracy of Google Maps and it is still used by Google as a way of keeping Maps up-to-date, for example by removing defunct business listings. “Its primary focus,” says Google’s Paddy Flynn,“is to make the user experience in Google Maps more real.”

Fourteen years later, Street View has been extended to 87 countries across the world, including Swaziland, American Samoa and even Antarctica. It has captured more than 10m miles of imagery and taken on a significance to many users that goes beyond its utility as a navigational tool. During Covid, searches spiked 10-fold, as users roamed the world in search of open spaces beyond the confines of home, supermarket and park. “It was a way for people to feel more connected to the real world,” Flynn says, “ see places and take virtual tours.”

Street View rewards the most intrepid explorers with obscure flourishes. Above Hawaii, Pegman transforms into a mermaid; on the banks of Loch Ness, he becomes the fictional monster. Users can even journey to the International Space Station and observe themselves through a pane of thickly reinforced glass, 400km from Earth.

On Street View, we have a panoptical view of the world and all the mysteries, non-sequiturs and idiocies that are part of everyday life. Here is Sherlock Holmes hailing a cab in Cambridge; a car submerged in a Michigan lake containing the body of a long-missing person; Mary Poppins waiting on the sidewalk at an amusement park; a caravan being stolen by a thief.

“I couldn’t believe it,” says David Soanes, a 56-year-old teacher from Linton, Derbyshire, and the owner of said caravan, which was stolen in June 2009. His son discovered the suspect on Street View and police were able to identify the man involved, although sadly this wasn’t sufficient evidence for a conviction. “I go back and look at it from time to time,” says Soanes, of the image of his former caravan mid-transfer to a new owner.

Maps have always been a vessel to try to contain the daunting abundance of the world by putting a cartographical stopper in it. “Maps have been around since time immemorial,” says Flynn, “and technology… enables digital representation. It is one thing to digitise maps and make them widely available and accessible. But that reflection of the real world is something that people are also looking for.”

Rather than offering a facsimile of the world we live in, Street View offers something more profound: the opportunity to spot loved ones on familiar streets, unaware that their errand or commute would be captured for posterity by the all-seeing eye of a camera-mounted Street View car.

Street View reveals us for who we really are, rather than the versions we present to the world. The criminal mid-theft; the inquisitive grandmother at the window.

Because most of the people captured are unaware they are being photographed, the images evoke a sense of intimacy and verisimilitude. The artist Jon Rafman, writing in Art City, describes Street View as an impersonal, abstract eye that is neither sparing nor sentimental. “The world captured by Google appears to be more truthful and more transparent because of the weight accorded to external reality,” Rafman writes, “and the perception of a neutral, unbiased recording.”

When we see ourselves on Street View, we are reminded that we are peripheral players in a much greater narrative; passersby in another person’s story, rather than the centre of the photographic frame.

When we catch a glimpse of our loved ones on Street View, we see their hidden, solitary life. For the artist and lecturer Lisa Selby, 44, from Nottingham, Street View was a way for her to reconnect with a mother she scarcely knew growing up.

Street View traps the dead and the living alike between pages of cartography, like dried flowers. The dead may not be visible to us in the living world any more, but on Street View, they achieve permanence.

“They keep updating the images for her street every few years,” Bell says, “but you go back to that year, and she’s still there. Sometimes I think about it and have a little look. I turn back the clock on the dial and she’s there again.”

But Street View does more than just capture our loved ones in candid moments. Because you can turn back the clock on earlier versions, Street View allows us to move through digital space in a non-temporal, non-linear way and connect with the past on an emotional level.

“A sense of place is so important in memory,” says the photographer Nancy Forde, from Waterloo, Ontario. Her Addressing Loss project asks users to submit stories and images of loved ones they miss, and the comfort they’ve found remembering them via Street View images from when they were alive.

To all those who use it, Street View evokes a sense of freedom, in a rules-based, time-bound world. “You can see bricks and mortar that aren’t there anymore,” says Selby. “Shops you remember that aren’t there anymore. I just wish it went all the way back to when I was born. But then I’d spend all my time on Street View, not in the real world. It’s almost like a game but based on reality.