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Life From Above

The freakiest new info-fetish: plumb the weirdness that is peer-to-peer satellite surveillance

I know, I know—the map is not the territory. But try believing that after two hours immersed in Google's latest, greatest info fetish: the Google Maps satellite view. Type in an address (1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, say), call up the map, switch to satellite imaging, and suddenly you're looking down at W.'s house from close enough to turn the threat level a deep, velvety red. Scroll south with the arrow keys a tad and you're over the Washington Monument; scroll northeast long enough and soon you're over the rooftops of Lower Manhattan, peering straight down at the very Orchard Street hovel you're sitting in right now. Congratulations. You've just mastered the basics of the Web's most epistemologically fucked-up waste of time ever: Google sightseeing.

Now on to the advanced levels. The Hollywood sign, the Burning Man campsite, the names of bored Midwesterners plowed into soybean fields—these are the crowd-pleasers linked to by the dozens at sites like Google Sightseeing (shreddies.org/gmaps/). To truly plumb the weirdness that is peer-to-peer satellite surveillance, however, you'll want to check out the Flickr crowd's collection of "memory maps": God's-eye snaps of the authors' childhood neighborhoods, annotated with brief, site-specific recollections (flickr.com/groups/memorymaps/pool/). "A really strange kid, Danny M., lived here," reads a typical label. "Where my dad moved after my parents divorced," says another. All those warm-bodied details woven into all that cold panoptic data add up to a haunting intimacy. Flickr user jrhyley's annotation of the South Carolina dogpatch he grew up gay in, for instance, builds to a sweet epiphany: "There was a paddock with horses here. . . . I remember marveling at how much they stank, and yet how pretty they were." Orwell probably wouldn't approve, but it's hard to miss the message: Big Brother is starting to feel like part of the family.

 
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