Back in the late 1950s, my dad bought me a subscription to National Geographic Magazine. He renewed it every year until I graduated from high school. I loved the magazine’s photos, stories, and sense of adventure. Most of all, I loved the maps.
Back then, National Geographic included a new map with almost every new issue. One month, I might receive a map of Africa, next month China, next, Alaska.
I collected those maps in blue folder knowing that one day I would visit all of those strange and exotic places. I studied the maps and I imagined what I might see when I reached those distant destinations. I hung onto those maps and that blue folder for years. They were a special treasure for me.
• I just typed in the street address, city, state, etc. of the home I grew up into http://showmystreet.com/. At first, I didn’t recognize the house. The big tree in the front yard is gone. The row of trees between our house and the neighbor’s is gone. But the pine tree in the back yard is still there but much bigger. And though the house is changed–and smaller than I remembered–it’s still there.
The underlying technology that can show me the house I haven’t seen in close to 40 years is amazing but also disturbing.
• When I was 18, (probably motivated by all those National Geographic maps I’d collected) I hitchhiked from Illinois down to Mexico and stayed for 3 or 4 months on 80 cents a day. Later I hitchhiked back home and then up to Alaska. Again, I stayed for 3 or 4 months, got a job, and then returned to Illinois. At age 19, I joined a seamans’ union in New Orleans (I don’t remember how I got there; I must’ve hitchhiked, again) and later sailed from Houston to Madras and Calcutta, India on a WWII freighter.
These were adventures. I went places that, at most, you could see on a map, but you had no idea of where you were really going or what you might see until you actually arrived. It was exciting to see places I’d only imagined. It was exciting to see the unknown. I have memories of what I saw that I could tell you about, but I can’t really show you. Those memories are special to me precisely because they can’t truly be shared.
But now we have technologies (Google Earth and http://showmystreet.com/) that can show us almost every street, city and valley on earth. The technology is breath-taking, but the consequences are disturbing.
Our trips and vacations are becoming as predictable as the menu at McDonald’s.
None of us can go anywhere that all of us can’t see on the internet. None of us can go anywhere that we can’t preview on the internet. Where is the mystery? Where’s the adventure? Where’s the surprise? Where’s the danger? With a GPS system, what do I need with maps? What do I need with imagination?
And what’s next? How long before Google not only photographs the exterior of the house where I grew up but also the interior? How long before Google can show us, real time, what anyone and everyone is doing right now? George Orwell’s 1984 didn’t begin to imagine the power of spying on people that’s inherent in modern computers and cheap, digital memory.
There is some cause for hope. When I looked up the address of the house I live in today, Google gave me pictures of the back alley–not from the actual Street where the house is located. Somehow, Google missed the street I now live on. I am strangely elated by Google’s error.
Perhaps resistance is not yet futile.