One of my favourite science fiction novels is “Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson. (Go on, buy it with one-click on Amazon!) – a cyber-punk style romp through a not-too-distant future where the author projects we will end up if we carry on business as usual. Not so much post-apocalyptic, more a toxic mix of organised crime, continent-wide ghettoisation and environmental devastation mixed with the coolest technology imaginable.
One main feature of his ‘Metaverse’ (the future name for the Internet – get used to it) is a real-time virtual 3D version of the entire planet.
It’s pretty mind-bending stuff – yet Stephenson’s fantasy is starting to come true. Google ‘Earth’, Microsoft ‘Virtual Earth’ and a million spin-off sites and applications are collectively drawing us closer to this self-fulfilling prophecy.
This month I thought I’d check in to see just how far the project has come. How detailed, in-depth and enlightening is this planet’s virtual reflection? What does it mean to be able to visualise our planetary home with such new perspective?
First stop – Google Earth www.earth.google.com – if you haven’t already done so, download it now and prepare for awe. If you have, say no more. You know.
MS Virtual Earth ( www.microsoft.com/VirtualEarth ) is to Google Earth as Zune to iPod. Awesome tech, but not as cool. Google has taken the human high-ground, MS serenades the corporate beast. Being a hominid like you, dear reader, I gravitate to Google Earth, where a swarm of other bipedal primates have amassed to build this great planet of the apes in our minds.
Millions of users are creating fly-through Contiki tours to prisons, illegally logged forests, war zones, historical sites, sporting venues, holiday destinations… all that is left is to put every Website in there, and you can kiss your Internet browser goodbye! maps.google.com combines GE content with the directory view, making it a bit easier to navigate.
Then there is the street-level stuff. maps.google.com/help/maps/streetview Privacy? What privacy? I really wish I hadn’t been scratching my backside the moment that Google camera car drove by! www.mapjack.com is an independent ‘street view’ start-up, which inevitably, along with all the other ones, will be absorbed by Google or Microsoft. Try also www.everyscape.com, www.locaview.com (no sub-titles, Japanese friend required) and www.immersivemedia.com
GeoNetwork – geonetwork-opensource.org – is the Open Source global mapping and spatially referenced data application. It’s promising, but without Google’s billions, the model might not grow legs.
This is all just a glimpse of things to come, I’m sure. It’s worth getting used to this new perspective on our existence. A lot is being asked of our feeble minds – to ‘get’ this planet and everything on it, let alone what lies beyond (www.google.com/sky and www.worldwidetelescope.org). Can our biology keep up with this technical evolution? Can we cope? Visual information overload. Collective mental breakdown. Or will we finally be humbled into a true sense of place, where the individual reconciles their microscopic insignificance with their stupendously inflated sense of self importance? Whatever. Anyone for golf?