Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Dyslocation

There have only been a few occasions in my life where I've felt the advance of technological change so keenly that I can honestly say I've been overwhelmed by it, and on each of those occasions computers have been involved in some way. I remember back in 1994 my first exposure to the Internet, and my discovery that I could read newspapers from the UK on the day they were published, and for free! That seems ridiculous now, of course, but during the 1980s my family used to make a twenty- mile trek downtown every week to buy outdated British newspapers at an inflated cost; we were otherwise mostly at a loss for news from the old country. When I first loaded up the website for the Times of London, I knew that all of that was at an end, and there was a curious feeling that went along with it: a kind of dizziness at the thought that the world was shrinking and being brought more easily within our grasp.

I experienced that same feeling again this week, thanks to Google's Street View UK. One of the 22 British cities to be faithfully photographed in every detail was Belfast, where I once lived as a boy and where I still have numerous relatives. My grandparents had a house on an estate in East Belfast until their death in 2007, and thanks to Google -- whose camera car stopped about four feet from the back gate -- I could see that the new owners of the house were renovating it from top to bottom. I was also easily able to track other changes to the neighbourhood: I noticed that the kind of grants given by various official bodies to the community tended to result in the creation of ostentatious signs and memorials, for example, even while the main street continued to wither away and die for lack of entrepreneurial activity. I remember the Newtownards Road of only twenty years ago as being a hub of thriving small businesses such as groceries, chemists, and newsagents, but unsurprisingly the extinction of the major local industry of shipbuilding resulted in a terrible blight that is evident from the numerous boarded- up and burnt- out storefronts.

There was one small sign of hope, which was that an actual office building was being constructed in the area at the time Google took its pictures. The neighbourhood is located only about a half- mile or so away from downtown Belfast, so from an economic perspective it isn't surprising that firms are beginning to consider moving there, but to someone like me who knows the local people and their ways it almost seemed as if an advanced alien civilization was constructing a distant and beleaguered outpost on a primitive planet. While the development is promising, it's not likely that many local people would yet have the professional or even social skills necessary to work in such a place.

The oddest thing about the Street View journey was the sensation of being able to move at will through my old neighbourhood while remaining stationary, and at a distance of thousands of miles. It was one of the first times that the endlessly over- hyped phrase "virtual reality" began to have any meaning for me at all. This is a truly revolutionary thing, to be able to travel and to explore a place from far away -- and after any session with Street View, I came away feeling as if I had actually been somewhere else for that time; all the while I felt the sensation, familiar to travellers, of having to adjust to new surroundings! Thanks to Google, the world has just become that much smaller again.

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