traveling the world with Google Streetview

I probably spend 10-15 hours a week on the phone, and I like to do things that allow me to concentrate on the conversation–activities that fill enough of my brain that I am not tempted by distractions like email. My latest habit is to zoom to some exotic place on the Google world map, open the Streetview function, and go walking or driving along.

Most of the world’s poor cities don’t have Streetview, although they do have lots of “panoramio” photos, which are almost as good. It’s no surprise that you can’t go for a virtual Google tour of Tehran or Pyongyang. A few cities in the Global North, such as Athens, seem strangely missing. But cities as diverse as São Paolo, Cape Town, Sydney, and London can be fully explored. One can also meander down country roads in France or move back and forth across the US-Mexico border without slowing for immigration.

Sometimes ghostly human figures appear close up. Sometimes you follow a car or truck for a few blocks. Often streets are eerily empty. Every place is still.

The zoom function is logarithmic, I think: each step moves you ten times closer. That suggests that the world is far smaller than it really is. You can walk around Beijing for a while in Streetview, get bored of its ranks of concrete high-rises, zoom out a few notches, and plunge back down in Tokyo’s Ginza district as if the two cities were neighbors. Google Streetview also makes the world somewhat more uniform than it really is. Downtown areas of big cities in Brazil, Australia, and Europe all look fairly similar. I suspect if one could hear and smell those locations, feel the air, and see the sky, they would seem dramatically different.

About Peter

Director of CIRCLE and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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