Friday, October 26, 2012

Google Maps our Frontiers, Ruins it For the Rest of Us

Google is now attempting to take their maps and street view innovations a step further by mapping not only our byways and avenues, but now giving us a ground level view of the great outdoors. They've started with the Grand Canyon, and have plans for many other national and global treasures. At first, this might seem an awesome way to show the online world some of our natural beauty, but the implications of this virtual pioneering on the physical experience are troubling.

In a world were frontiers are increasingly scarce and difficult to uncover, the opportunity for an adventure of 18th century proportion is nearly impossible to find. Mountain ranges have been mapped and well worn by skiers and governors from South Carolina. The Arctic is no more unknown than the frosty depths of the average kitchen freezer. Unless you are a member of a 90's boy band-turned astronaut or James Cameron, the uncharted territory of our world is largely inaccessible. The only option left is to walk in the footsteps of our naturalist forefathers and explore anew the already uncovered. Plotting a trek through the Amazon or up Mount Everest is a visceral experience, but rather than experiencing the breathtaking visages first hand, we now have the opportunity to taint that experience with a virtual donkey ride into the Grand Canyon courtesy of Google. My fear is that, given the option of experiencing adventure first hand or watching it on a screen, many will opt for the reclining position that their iPad allows.

I do see some benefits of this mapping endeavor. For those who will not or cannot otherwise embark on physical adventures, this service will provide an experience that would otherwise be missed, and I am all for allowing that access. But just as we've seen a declination in physical activity among young people who've grown up surrounded by screens and instant gratification, I fear that this easy access to the natural wonders we have available to us will degrade the excitement for exploring first-hand these unique locales. Will the ability to visually experience the entire trip into the Grand Canyon pique a childs desire to feel the stone underfoot, hear the echoes of the canyon walls, and pensively choose each step down that precarious trail, or will the virtual experience satiate their hunger for discovery and understanding? Will Google's wilderness "trail-view" create a new generation of Teddy Roosevelts and John Audubons, or will it further cement our societal apathy for first-hand experience? My hope is for the prior, but I fear the latter.

Whatever the eventual implications, I will concede that I am excited to see the fruits of this latest Google endeavor. Will this experience prevent me from taking such a trip in person some day? Definitely not. Will it lessen the experience? Only time will tell.


1 comment:

  1. Chris- I'm a couple of years behind on this blog- hopefully I'll have time to get slowly caught up now.

    Since the first time I looked at Yellowstone Park through my 3D View-Master, I find that, for me, reading about places and looking at pictures of places just makes me want to go there, and for those places I can't visit, these experiences are valuable "next best things." I'd not heard about this project. I may have to check it out.