Virtual Worlds A Life in Google Maps
“I can’t zoom in far enough to see if we were happy, or sad, or changing, or lying to ourselves.”
Inside Google Maps, we still live together. It’s July 2012 here; my car is parked in the driveway. One of your ham radio antennae peeks over the roof. The trees are in full leaf, so I can’t see the windows; are the lights on? Am I inside? It’s overcast, but the sun seems high; maybe I’m walking the dog, but I don’t see us. Probably I’m at my desk. Possibly I am on the floor crying for reasons I don’t even understand. It is five months until I leave.
You’re at work. Inside Google Maps, it’s July 2008 at your lab. I can’t zoom in close enough to see your bike in the vestibule, but I know you’re there. It’s overcast here too, one mile and four years away; maybe they’re the same clouds. Maybe they never parted. We aren’t married yet, here at the lab, though we will be soon.
If you’re thinking about me at work, which you’re not, you probably think I’m at my office downtown. But it’s June 2014 there, and I’m in New York, at my first Brooklyn apartment, where it’s September. My car is parked here too, on my block in Brooklyn, in September 2014, inside Google Maps. Inside Google Maps, I live with you, and I live without you.
Inside Google Maps, at the building where we got married, it’s August 2009. The road runs along a blank brick wall, where we stood and waited before walking out into the next part of our lives. We came back to the wall when it was over; someone hugged me; someone put a plate of hors d’oeuvres in my hand. Beyond the wall, behind a sparse hedge, is the garden. A year ago, it was full of chairs and gnats and uncles. At your lab, this won’t happen for two months. At home, it’s a memory. In Brooklyn, it’s long gone.
When Google Maps started offering Street View in 2007, it collected images by car: vehicles outfitted with roof-mounted 360-degree cameras, piloted by temporary contract employees who didn’t mind driving around for eight hours a day. The fleet has grown, the cameras have become more sophisticated, and the cars have been joined by snowmobiles and hand carts and SCUBA divers, so you can visit an Antarctic penguin rookery or the White House or the Great Barrier Reef. But the basic concept remains the same: an unknown number of cars gliding around from sunrise to sunset, tracking and re-tracking millions of miles of road. A complete record of panoramic eye-level views.
Or at least it seems complete, if you’re in the U.S. or another country with near-universal coverage. (Google hasn’t sent its cars everywhere; it can’t, it doesn’t want to, and sometimes it isn’t allowed.) A vast archive like this one implies a kind of comprehensiveness, but this is always illusory. A map containing everything would be infinite and ever-expanding, a world remade; imagine a Google Street View updated every second, to include every second in every place on earth to the dawn of time. It can’t be done. There will always be choices; things ignored or thrown away or not included yet. There will always be gaps. And the more complete the archive, the more invisible the gaps become.
In the parts of Google Street View that have near-total coverage, the invisible missing element is time. Germany, for instance, is sparse in the countryside but thick with Street View images in major cities—but in none of those cities will it ever be “now,” or anywhere close to now. In 2011, Germany asked that Google stop Street View collection in the country, citing privacy concerns. Inside Google Maps, in Germany, it will never be later than 2011. (At least in Street View; some users have donated their 360-degree images from later years.) Four thousand miles away, we will always be living in the same house.
In truth, inside Google Maps it will never be “now” anywhere. The most trafficked streets of the most traversed cities might be re-sampled every year or two, but even there it is at best this afternoon, this morning, yesterday. More likely it’s last month, last year, two years ago. You can travel back in time, on these popular streets, rolling the clock back to the panoptic camera’s previous run—but you won’t see the time in between. At my first New York apartment, it is 2014, and 2013, and 2011, and 2009, and 2007 . . . but it is never 2012.
Inside Google Maps, there’s a past, but not all the past. There’s a future, but not all the future. There’s no present to speak of; no matter how recent the image, it will never be now. And yet the gaps heal themselves, and hide themselves. If you’re looking in New York, San Francisco, London, even Berlin where it will always be 2008, you are likely to find your destination. If its past is patchy, if its present is lost, will you notice? Will you care?
All this about gaps in the archives is grad school stuff. I know it, faintly, from a previous life. I don’t feel as old as I am, and it’s hard for me to believe I’ve had time for one former life, let alone more than one, but there it is in the digital record: emails to professors, chats about authors whose names I don’t recognize. Even if I’d lost the memory—and some of it I have, a lot of it, all the Foucault—there would be evidence: Here I was.
But not in Google Maps. Inside Google Maps, at the brick monstrosity where I spent most of that former life, it’s 2008 and it has only ever been 2008. I’ve never been here, inside Google Maps; I haven’t set foot in this building in years. That life, like anywhere before 2007, doesn’t exist.
This is nothing new. Former lives die in pieces every day. They slip out of our consciousness without fanfare; we say, “Of course I remember grad school,” or “Of course I remember my marriage,” but any individual day is likely as lost as my old Brooklyn block in 2012. Memory is a stop-motion film with missing frames, the glimpses through the fence that turn into an image only at high speeds.
I read an article recently, in Wired , about a woman with no personal memory. She could recall facts, lyrics, people; she navigated the world with perfect ease. But she had no recollection of stories or scenes from her life. She couldn’t relive an experience, or even describe it. If asked how she felt at a particular time, she would guess based on cues she knew: She was singing a solo? Probably nervous. It was summer? Probably hot. She knew where she’d gone on vacation, but not anything that happened there.
It’s a fascinating story because her life seems so impoverished, and yet in a way so free: no wakeful nights contemplating something embarrassing she said at a party in 2002. But it’s also fascinating because, I suspect, we all suffer a fractional version of these gaps, and we are patching them with guesswork all the time. What did I feel on my wedding day? Probably happy. Probably nervous. Probably hot.
Nobody thinks the Google Street View archive is actually exhaustive, of course. Even on the most documented thoroughfares, the images are static and flat; there’s a limit to how far you can zoom in, how much you can see. The insides of buildings, their back lots, their courtyards are off-limits. This world has no interior, only facade.
I have always had an unnaturally precise visual memory for places; I could, for example, describe to you the layout and decor of a house where my family stayed for one month in the summer when I was eight years old. In my mind, I can supply the interiors that Google lacks: the closet I hid in as a child; the studio apartment where my college professor first kissed me; the living room where you and I existed side by side and did not touch.
Inside Google Maps, at our old house, it is July 2012. You can’t see in from the street, but here my memory can take over: There is the rental-chic marled carpet and the white paneled walls, the large tropical houseplant and the ridiculously outdated television, the amateurish paintings in good frames. I truly believe there are mice in the closets, nesting in everything we meant to sort out but did not.
I can see that life, but I can no longer enter it. I can’t get inside your head—I never could—but I can’t get inside mine, either; I can’t zoom in far enough to see if we were happy, or sad, or changing, or lying to ourselves. The images are here but the emotions are lost. Memory has no interior, only facade.
Inside Google Maps I stand on the street outside our house, where I still live, but I can’t go in. Outside Google Maps I stand inside, in my mind, and look at my former life, and wonder.
The county we lived in is on the list for new image collection. Sometime between July and October, a car with a strange panoptic eye will drive down our old street, and the last place we still live together will be overwritten. The image of our house in July 2012 will be replaced with a house we’ve abandoned, where someone else lives. Their car in the driveway. Your antennae down.
Except that in fact we’ll still be in there, just another layer deep. Inside Google Maps, nothing is lost forever, at least if it existed sometime between 2007 and now. All these slices of time exist simultaneously, overlapped on each other like a sheaf of photos. This will be the first image of our old house where we’re not in it, but one layer of archive deep we’ll be in it still.
There are two competing theories about why and how we forget. One holds that old memories degrade, actually becoming less distinct over time; the other, that they remain essentially pristine but inaccessible, smothered by new memories that have been paved over top of them. Inside Google Maps, in a way, both of these are true. Old images are grainier, yellower, like Polaroids—not from degradation, but from a kind of reverse degradation, camera technology getting better over time. And they’re overwritten constantly, sometimes frequently—every four years or so even in our old suburb, more often in a major city. They’re accessible, but only if you know where to look: a small clock icon, just a few pixels across. And for many years, and most days, and nearly every minute, there is no record at all.
New York changes all the time, so it gets updated often; even inside Google Maps, it’s always new. Most of the images of Manhattan and Brooklyn have been made over since I arrived. The only exception is the major parks, large verdant pockets of slow time inside which I don’t live in New York yet. Just outside Prospect Park, in Grand Army Plaza, it is September 2014 and I live a mile and a half away. Inside the park, it’s August 2012 and I’m in another state, in another life.
Besides that, the oldest pocket of time I’ve found is the edge of Park Slope, right by the BQE, where I stayed with a friend when I first moved up. It’s January 2013 here, and I’m inside the building, just on the other side of that front window. I’m staying in her daughter’s old room, which she’s renamed the Divorce Room for all the sad friends who’ve wandered through. It’s shockingly cold, here in January 2013, and my friends are kind but I’m sad and awkward and terrified of being a burden. Outside the city is blank and inhospitable, a row of unfriendly backs hurrying away.
In real life, my friend moved to Berlin, where it is 2008 in perpetuity, but inside Google Maps it’s 2013 and she’s still here. Someday, probably soon, the car will come through, and neither of us will be there anymore—though of course we still will be, another layer deep, another layer distant, another layer harder to recall. In the Divorce Room forever.
Inside Google Maps, at the apartment where I live now with my boyfriend, it’s September 2014. We’ve been dating for about six months, and we don’t live here. We have not so much as imagined living together—we haven’t even said “I love you” yet. We are taking it slow; we are new here, and like anyone new, we left parts of ourselves behind. Inside Google Maps, inside our memories, a ghost still goes home to the old house every day.
But nothing in New York stays static for long—even inside Google Maps, where time can be shuffled like cards. The car will come through any day now, and here we’ll be.