“Can I go outside and play, Mommy?”…”Sorry, son. GoogleMaps isn’t working right now.”

I am fascinated by GoogleMaps. And I’m terrified by it. I’m afraid it’s eating the sun…

The things that can be done with a computer these days blow my mind, partly because I just can’t understand it, and partly because I remember the games I used to play on the old green-screen gem my Dad bought to take to Costa Rica with us. One in particular stands out: a sort of choose-your-own-adventure based on the Wizard of Oz books. Two dimensions, little shaded cut-outs immobile on the tiny monitor. Do you follow the Yellow Brick Road, or do you stay and fight the flying monkeys? Either way, you’ll move on to another set of cut-outs and another static question, until the cows come home or you fall asleep.

A couple of years ago (and this demonstrates the extent to which Luddite tendencies dog my trail), I sat down to play another game, based on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, that I’d pulled out of the bargain bin on a whim. And I spent the next few weeks with my lower jaw sitting on the floor and flies moving in and out of my head. The sheer magnitude of the trajectory leading from Pac-Man and Frogger to this wonder of animation and movement left me speechless. I felt kind of like a caveman, thawed out at the height of the 20th century, and confronted with a nine-lane superhighway.

So, I’ll be the first to admit that technology can lead us to some awesome places. But here’s the rub: at the same time, it can also keep us from going to some even more awesome places…and this is what worries me.

Lately, I’ve been spending way too much time screwing around on GoogleMaps. Anyone who knows me knows I’m more than a little obsessed with the UK (or, for that matter, anyone who’s bothered to read the title of my blog); furthermore, anyone who’s seen my bank statement knows I can’t afford to hop a plane and go there at the moment. So, instead, I go by proxy. I can tool peacefully along English and Scottish highways and byways, and see some beautiful scenery, and not have to worry about those pesky extra baggage fees, or whether or not some security guard is going to see my digital outline naked. It’s all pretty impressive, and technology makes it possible.

I was so caught up in my e-exploring that I never stopped to think about the wider implications of what I was doing. Then I heard something that really made me stop and think. I heard that the Google-guys are mapping the Grand Canyon. Folks with panoramic cameras strapped to their heads are wandering the trails of the Canyon so that we don’t have to. Now, instead of the bothersome hike, we’ll be able to take in the wonders of nature from the comfort of our office chairs (complete with cup-holder and “magic fingers”).

I remember going to the Grand Canyon as a kid on a trip the family took to California. I remember the sensation of standing on the edge of emptiness, with only a strong puff of wind between myself and a better acquaintance with gravity. Such an experience brings with it two realizations very important to this art we call “being human.” First, it makes one aware of the bigger picture–some call it God, some Nature. Either way, perched on the rim of everything like that, a person tends to appreciate his or her place as part of a whole, pieces in the puzzle that adds up to the universe humanity calls home. The second realization is an extension of the first: how small are we? In the words of Shelley, I am Ozymandias, king of kings. Millions of feet have stood, and will stand, on the spot upon which I stood as a child; my footprints will blow away with the wind, to be replaced by others equally transient and, ultimately, insignificant when compared with the yawning chasm we so arrogantly call a “nature preserve.” A visit to a place like that reminds us abruptly that we do not preserve nature. Nature preserves us, and will survive us and whatever effort we make to wipe it from existence.

Is this sort of experience, tactile and immediate, to be found in the land of computerized tourism? I will not be convinced that it is. And perhaps you aren’t either. Perhaps I’m preaching a sermon no one needs to hear. Certain things cannot be duplicated, you might say: the wind in your hair, the smells and sounds of Nature, the feeling of miles flowing away beneath you as you drive. But think of the things we can do now, care of technological advancement, that we could not do just a decade or less ago. When I sat in front of the old green-screen playing my Wizard of Oz game, all of this seemed about as likely as a flying DeLorean, but nevertheless, here we are. What happens when that breeze, and those flowers, and the receding asphalt all find their way into and out of that computer screen sitting on your desk? What then? Perhaps paranoia is my name; perhaps not.

Now, this is all well and good, coming from a guy typing a blog post, yet another of the many venues provided by technological advancement. I can now communicate my thoughts and feelings with people I have never–probably will never–meet, and they with me. It is part of the Great Democratization of Information, a return to the Victorian literary ethic, when every man was a philosopher, every woman an orator, every person a published author, with the digital corpus to prove it. But is it real, or is it a bait and switch? At what point do I devote so much time communicating with people I don’t know that I forget to communicate with the people I do? Is it even real communication? Do I really know you, or you me, if we cannot see one another’s expressions, hear the tones of each other’s voices? How do I respond to you if I do not see how you respond to me? Is it dialogue if I can log off at the first sign of disagreement? All of these are important questions that have been sublimated by the rise of faceless (and consequence-less) relationships encouraged by social media. I can “friend” someone without the obligations that come with being a friend. I am an icon; I need not really even exist.

Let me leave you with a thought. (Just one.) I work in an academic library. I spend eight hours a day holding books, thumbing through them, smelling the new paper. In this line of work, we are beginning to undergo something of an identity crisis, again because of the ever-expanding information society. The “e-book” is on the move, and we face the very real possibility of the traditional library becoming not a repository of knowledge, but Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe for those who have never experienced the physical process of print research, and for whom the ease of discovery has watered down its triumph and joy.

I face this possibility with both the nostalgia of personal experience and the pragmatism of historical sensibility. I don’t know what to make of it. I think of the medieval scriptoria and of the monks slaving over vellum and parchment by the light of a guttering candle, each letter a painstaking labor of love and devotion. These same men rebelled at the advent of Gutenberg and his press, because in their minds the automated process destroyed commitment, leached the sacral element from the very words on the page. It was easier, they asked, but was it better? Today, having accepted the printing press as routine, we are faced with the same process, digitized. In the midst of whatever gains we make through “worldwide” access, do we ever pause to think what might be lost? I do not claim any sacred status for the printed word, but what value lies in the expenditure of time and effort in dusty research libraries that disappears with the simple click of a button? Is it worth as much if it costs us nothing? Is the Great Democratization of Information merely a convenient disguise for the amelioration of experience?

We are entering a period of ubiquitous vicarious living, and we don’t even see it coming. We are ceding the experiences of life, the making of memories, to computer programmers and Web designers. Like the medieval monastics I ask: It may be easier, but is it better? Are we diluting J.B. Priestley’s “thickness of life” with the shallowness of Web-based living? What are we giving up to capitalize on our gains?

I am fascinated by GoogleMaps. And I’m terrified by it. I’m afraid it’s eating the sun…

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