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Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Google Street View: showing us what we may or may not want to see

I’m typing this post from my basement.

Yep, I’m holed up here with bottles of water, canned tuna and powdered milk – everything I’ll need to survive the Apocalypse.

I can only assume Judgment Day is upon us, given the new low human contact recently hit when Google employee Michael Weiss-Malik proposed to his girlfriend using Google Street View.

We’re all probably familiar with Google’s kitschy new gadget now – you know, the one that essentially combines Google Maps with Google Earth? The one that lets us map the world via street level – no, eye level – photographs?

Well, given that Street View lets us see things in fine detail, including text on signs and storefronts, if a given camera has high enough resolution, it was only a matter of time before someone tried to top the Super Bowl proposal stunt.

Does Street View raise privacy concerns? Yes and no. Faces are blurred to maintain anonymity, but Street View still captures plenty of personal moments, as evidenced by this fascinating catalogue of freeze frames compiled by Search Engine Land.

Yet while Silicon-Valley based companies churn out one new invention after another, championing their ability to make the world more transparent and accessible (whether it's through blogging, YouTube, Google Earth, Twitter, or Street View), legit privacy concerns sometimes get swept under the rug. I feel the sorriest for anyone in off-the-grid, unofficial professions who could get in trouble if spotted repeatedly operating in the same places (Musicians? Scalpers? Mimes? I'm not sayin', I'm just sayin').

Don’t get me wrong – Street View brings some fascinating benefits to mind. It’s no secret that it can potentially catch criminals in that act (perhaps Google could earn privileges to “de-blur” any activity that appears illegal). It also could not only spot traffic, but reduce it. Street View users may view a snapshot of a given street before hopping in their cars, realize that the traffic is awful, and choose public transportation instead. Also, high-rez photo zones could be a dream come true for shoppers. Love that little family run boutique that doesn’t have a website? Never fear – Street View can zoom in and help you read the sale prices in the window. Same goes for restaurant menus.

The same features that make Street View appealing, however, could prove detrimental to the economy. Take the film and theatre business, for example. The Dark Knight is devouring box-office records daily, and excited audiences are still lining up out the doors of multiplexes night after night to catch the Caped Crusader. If you make the trip to the theatre and find yourself in line, you’ll likely say “well, we’re here now, we made the effort, no point in turning back.” If you used Street View in advance and saw the line around the corner in a photo, though, you may have opted for sitting at home watching Dancing with the Stars instead. And forget window shopping – what about window tourism? Could people take a frame-by-frame virtual stroll around the gates of Buckingham Palace instead of paying for the tour?

I also wonder how Street View, should it become a major hit, could affect advertising. If the Google worker used a sign to make his proposal legible, what steps could retail outlets and restaurants take to stand out on Street View? A city block lined with billboards and giant mascots is quite the image, eerily similar to a homepage laden with competing pop-up ads.

Most of the aforementioned concerns will only come into play should Street View achieve widespread use. Technologies may develop to a point at which we reach a crossroads and must decide if they do in fact serve the greatest good, offering more pros than cons.

For now, we can at least say that human contact may have taken one more step backward thanks to this innovation. What else can we say about the Google man’s proposal? At least the sporting-event proposal guy, as cheesy as he was, had the guts to do the deed in person. He’s a dying breed.

Posted by Matt Larkin




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