Google Maps recently launched its latest feature, a panoramic, street-level view of several major US cities. Despite not being the first of its kind, this is the most satisfying street-level simulation I have seen. In particular, what Google has brilliantly solved is the question of navigation and performance, once again demonstrating the importance of execution. Yet, beyond technical sophistication, my interest lies in the artifact created by this new type of visualization.
At first glance, it is captivating. Very soon, however, disappointment sets in, as one begins to notice the vehicles, pedestrians, and storefronts populating the urban landscape. A bus blocking the view of a building; a person crossing the street. And as I navigate along a busy street in downtown Manhattan, it occurs to me that the reason for my disappointment is the shattering of an illusion. It is the recognition that I am witnessing a simulation. The disappointment lies in seeing people that I cannot interact with: caught unaware and left for others to discover from sheer coincidence, these unfortunates are now permanently (and by no means arbitrarily) associated with a particular place. It lies in a storefront that I know no longer exists, or in a construction site in place of the completed building. It is the disappointment that arises from the expectation of reality (a myth which maps often keep intact). To be sure, there exists no city free of these things, lest it would be a shell, a model.
In other words, it is the myth of reality which I look for, yet cannot find here. Instead, I find passage and compression of time, resulting from a juxtaposition of the present (or the memory of the present) and the recorded past. The past here is an assemblage of non-simultaneous moments, a pastiche of disparate impressions connected through context. Interestingly, there are continuous patterns within this context—narrative threads, allowing me to trace the movement of the camera. And in some images I find a punctum, to reference Barthes—something which catches my eye and establishes a personal connection. Yet the knowledge that these images were taken without a witness makes any connection feel disingenuous. I am not supposed to relate to the detail or occurrence, but instead regard it as fact. Any detail that captures my attention cannot result from the intentional (or unintentional) framing of the photographer; it is merely an artifact of the environment.
It is the opposite experience to Second Life, in which I expect simulation, and find reality. Thus, I am startled by the sudden interaction with another player, just as I continue to be surprised by the diversity of the “architectural” landscape. It is an experience which I perceive as a place, coexisting with the physical environment. StreetView, on the other hand, is non-memorable and ultimately isolating—a facsimile of an environment, which—despite its artifice—continues to captivate.