The View on the Street

15 Jul

Further to my earlier announcement about the Loitering with Intent exhibition at the People’s History Museum, in Manchester, featuring a special edition of STEPZ zine, here is my article as published:

The View on the Street

The full text is reproduced below:

On considering the whereabouts of the People’s History Museum, I did what anyone these days would do, I checked Google Maps. I soon found myself roaming around Salford on Street View, looking through the “eyes of the Pegman”.
In the silent, frozen time of Street View, my mind created its own soundscape. Seeing the railway arches of the viaduct into Salford, I was transported back to Attercliffe, Sheffield, 1983. I am walking to British Rail’s permanent way maintenance depot. Beyond the viaduct on Furnival Road, there are glimpses through huge metal doors into the steelworks. Molten steel glows orange. I feel the subterranean boom and clangs of machinery. There is a sulphurous smell of coal.

I click on the white chevron…

Since it appeared in 2007, Google Street View has gone beyond mere novelty, and established itself as a near essential tool to many practitioners in urban design, environmental study and other site-related professions. With Street View it is possible to do preliminary reconnaissance or even avoid site visits altogether.
Street View has created the opportunity to explore more locations across the world than any individual could physically reach in a lifetime. On the face of it, this can be done safely, free from intimidation, and it is open equally to all. Or at least it is if you have internet access.

It would be nonsense to suggest that, in its current guise, it can in any way replace the experience of walking. However, as technological developments continue to advance, the virtual reality foreseen by William Gibson appears ever closer.

With Trekker busy tramping around national parks and pedestrian areas, Street View allows the user to veer off road. There are Street View-based web-tours in which users trigger recorded sounds. Google Cardboard and Photosphere can provide virtual 360o 3D experiences. People already insert their own images into Google Map. It is not a huge leap to incorporate video, sounds, physical sensations or real-time CCTV.

As Google makes more frequent updates, it offers the ability in some places to go back and review previous views and witness how the landscape has changed. This is akin to time travel. Street View becomes ever more synchronous with the present, and if viewing into the past becomes more universally available, then our disconnection from time and space will be complete.

Rebecca Solnit proclaimed that “walking is how the body measures itself against the world.”1 Rhythms of walking, ambient sounds, chance human encounters, and relating time and distance are integral to the pedestrian experience, which cannot be easily replicated. By contrast, Street View is like sensory deprivation, and any urge to meander off down an alleyway or over a fence is curtailed.

How will people approach the real world as Street View becomes a more pervasive everyday experience? Some people may become more sensitized to the visceral chaos of the city, while others navigate purely by series of images, headphones on, oblivious to the feel of the air on skin.

There are more sinister implications to Street View and its impact on public/private space. Many people find Street View an invasion of privacy. If Street View makes some places more easily accessible, could it also be used to make other places disappear? Perhaps so for those with sufficient power to maintain their privacy from Google’s cameras. What will become of public spaces if people retreat from them into a virtual world?

Businesses advertise and promote information on Google Maps. Street View facilitates further commercialisation of space, virtually, and by extension, in the real world. Google has appropriated editorial control, and all our movements within Street View can be tracked. People appear to have lost the battle for virtual space without realising it was there to be won.

Continuing my virtual dérive, I found this poem within the images of Street View:

Welcome you are now in Salford
Rome
No Stopping except taxis at any time
Controlled zone
We’re demolishing this structure to create an opportunity for a modern gateway building
Spin factory
Sounds from the other city
The Fall
The courage of one will change the world
Road Closed
Diversion
£3 real deal
Earn it
For timetables and bookings download the app
We lead others follow
Ahead only
Road ahead closed
A fresh perspective
Warning CCTV cameras in operation on these premises 24 hour surveillance
Luxury city centre apartments for sale and to rent
Garden Lane
Danger
Keep out
“My four-year-old could’ve done that”
Zone ends

1 Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust. A History of Walking, 2001.

A couple of montages that accompanied my original draft are here (all images courtesy of Google):

Here are all the images from Google Street View as seen on my virtual derive through Salford.

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