You may or may not be aware at the archival potential of Google Street view, but ever since the search engine behemoth has been photographing and spying on as much of our cities as it can, it has created a rather useful, freely accessible public archive of outdoor space. Archival research has long been the preserve of historical geographical research, but as Keighren (2013: 577) has eloquently argued (and still does to this day in our regular corridor conflabs, and with the same level of eloquence)…
“The skills associated with historical research – critical evaluation of sources, triangulation of data, attention to the beliefs and opinions of particular cultural groups – are precisely those which are encouraged and valued elsewhere in the human geography curriculum.”
While taking a few minutes to scroll through the historical images that Google has stored in its ongoing panoptic assault on everyday urbanity does not, nor should not, replace the much longer time needed to conduct archival research in situ, it provides students a gateway into the vibrancy of archives and how they contain a real impact upon research of the contemporary condition. And in the age of the pandemic and online digital learning, it’s proved extremely useful for urban research.
Well, I never thought that my visualising cities series would be one of the more popular posts on my blog, but then if you put a reference to the women in the red dress from The Matrix in a blog, you are bound to see the hit counter rise…
Google have recently taken their world domination agenda to the next phase by sending out their fleets of vehicles that can only be described as the Model-T meets war of the worlds to photograph every street in the major cities of the western world. With just a click of a button, you can now view the facades of buildings, the layout of roads and the blurred faces of your neighbours around your city without leaving the comfort of your own home. Cities, it seems are becoming more and more navigable remotely. This has many benefits, most notably the planning of journeys but it is also being increasingly used as the first ‘scouting’ of a particular part of a city. Say you were going to meet a friend for a drink – you could log on to StreetView, find a pub that looked nice and was in a nice area and head straight for it, rather than amble around looking for a local watering hole. Or if you are planning a shopping trip, you can now look at every shop that you would pass if you walked a specific route and tailor your trip to minimise effort and still visit all the shops you wanted.
Without revisiting the arguments made by the Suituationists and dérive, Google StreetView is short-circuiting the process of discovery by laying out a virtual city at our fingertips. De Certeau argued that walking a city is an experiential movement, evoking a sense of discovery and (to take a pedagogic stance) learning which not only shapes the individual, but also the city itself. If StreetView continues to pervade our cities then how long before businesses begin to use it as a factor in location decisions? Urban planners could theoretically use it to scope out potential place-making procedures, or see which parts of the city have gentrification potential. We will begin to see the city being shaped through the virtual environment. The dystopians among us will suggest that this self-fueling system will see the city implode on itself in some horrific multiple-layered virtual reality where we walk through the city a frame at a time with a massive white arrow at our feet. This is of course a discourse best left to the realm of science fiction (and indeed it is touched upon in premise of the Thirteenth Floor), however, using these virtual environments to explore the city eschews the inherent complexity and nonlinear urban fabric. It allows the ‘viewer’ (for want of a better phrase) to isolate a singular aspect or point of the city, extricating it from the complex relational web from which it was forged. The variance of emotions, ideas, memories and experiences that go to make up a city are lost (to a more or lesser extent) if we can cherry pick our navigation virtually, ‘before’ setting out.
Hannah Nicklin, recently blogged about an ‘exploratory performance’ which she ‘encountered’ (I sympathise with her difficulty in finding an appropriate lexicon) that encourages people to walk around a small section of Covent Garden while listening to an mp3 dialogue of someone’s experiences of the same area. In doing so, there is a sense of discovery, exploration and achievement which is only obtainable via this (albeit augmented) type of dérive. Particular targeted usage and reasoning of the city (i.e. shopping or going for a drink with a friend) is clearly facilitated by such technological advancements, but sometimes the best way to improve our understanding of the city in which we live is to do away with StreetView, or our GPS and maps for that matter, and just get lost.