There’s been quite a lot of coverage in the press about Google’s street-mapping of the tsunami-damaged Fukushima district in Japan, still derelict two years since the disaster.
I think this is interesting for a couple of reasons, The first is the use of Google’s Street View as a journalism. The mayor of Namie invited the cameras in an effort to stop the world forgetting about the catastrophe. As far as I know, this is the first time street view has been used to document an area with this kind of subtext. In the future, might we demand more from news teams than carefully composed photographs and long video pans of disaster zones? Perhaps we’ll want to walk ourselves through the rubble, even see it captured in LIDAR and reconstructed to the smallest 3D detail.
Secondly, it reminds me that all of Google’s street maps are destined to fall out of date. By and large, street maps hold their stock. Even after the Great Fire of 1666, the City of London doggedly rejected a new layout and rebuilt according to the narrow, serpentine streets that had shaped the city since time immemorial. But the contents of those streets are in constant flux. Shops open and close. Buildings rise and fall. Outside of London’s Old Street station, near to my workplace, a new residential tower block has made Google’s rendering of the area almost unrecognisable.
We all marveled at Google’s effort to digitise the world, seemingly achieved overnight, but it’s a feat that will have to repeated over and over again to keep their street view current. So what happens to those old street view images? There’s no need to bin them – digital real estate is cheap enough that I suspect Google will add a feature to their Street View: a slider that lets you scroll back through time, to previous scenes captured by the Google cameras. See this place as it appeared ten, fifteen, twenty years ago. The ability to automatically localise photographs, working out where they fit into the mosaic, offers the prospect that historical images could be added to this Google Time View. Scroll back a hundred years instead of ten. Go all the way back to pre-history (aka 1997).
And perhaps, the future holds street-mapping as a tool for posterity, capturing urban landscapes in detail before they are lost. Liverpool’s city centre was gutted to make way for the private L1 complex, built to a new streetplan which severed the connection with the city’s history. The Street View of the future might not just show you where you are, but also where you were.
Finally, what narratives might play out over a landscape in this timescale? Aside from observing gentrification or decay flash forward with the flick of a cursor, Google’s candid recollections of everyday life might be a stage on which to perform longer works. We all remember the Norwegian scuba divers captured chasing the Google mapping car, spears in hand. But with a little dedication and planning, what appears to be a single panel glyph to passers-by can emerge as a story over time.
And after all, isn’t that what history is all about?