A Full-Scale Model of Everything

Today's episode of the Upgrade podcast was interesting as ever. About midway through, Jason Snell offers a depiction of the ubiquity of YouTube as good as any I've heard. To paraphrase: for many children and adolescents, YouTube is not only replacing television, but almost every other digital format as well, making it the sine qua non for the consumption of video content of any kind. However, I'd like to address what came next: Snell argues that because of this ubiquity, YouTube will ultimately be what Google is remembered for, even after Gmail and its other properties have presumably been lost to the mists of irrelevance.

If we reduce the argument to an assertion that YouTube's importance is probably being vastly misapprehended right this minute, and that its impact down the road will likely be greater than we currently realize, then it's one I don't disagree with.

YouTube, though, doesn't fundamentally change anything about what we do when we sit down in front of a screen. It simply replaces one pattern of consumption with another very similar one. We look at videos, we like or don't like them, and sometimes we say things to others about them. Even if YouTube can at times throw up strange challenges to the definitions of things like, authorship, celebrity, distribution, and even—yes—entertainment itself, it's still largely about passively consuming audiovisual material and occasionally participating in some sense of community organized around that very material.

I would counterargue in favour of Street View as the technology that Google will be remembered for (or perhaps more accurately the entire technology stack that constitutes taking 360˚ pictures, stitching them seamlessly together, and associating them with points in space and time).

Street View has already irrevocably changed my perception of space, and even the ways I think about other people and their everyday lives and cultures, all in the context of retracing, click by click, a Google Car's progress through a city I've never visited. I have spent countless hours immersed in this slow, lurching astral-projection-by-JavaScript. I've merged into fast moving traffic, activated my windshield wipers against rain, stopped to coo at a cute dog tied up outside a bakery. I have some, albeit cursory, understanding of the density and scale of a place like Tokyo and by extension the sights and sounds I'd encounter there. And you know what? Visiting a place for the first time will never be quite the same.

I think it's down to a future where Street View and the more batshit projects (self-driving car and augmented reality wearable) inexorably combine into something that, at its deepest and most unfathomable limit, could deliver the ability to "step through" a faraway—but very real—location in something approaching VR and at something approaching real-time, accompanied by all the other geocoded information (the zillions of petabytes of addresses and business information and traffic reports and construction projects) that Google already indexes. We're backing all this stuff up, right?

I was intrigued when Google started making available the historical versions of Street View images. Although in practice this is limited to one or two versions of the same location, my mind boggles at what this could look like when stretched out over tens or hundreds of years. Imagine scrubbing through a hundred years of the street you grew up on and all its data. Whether it's in a browser or in some sort of wearable cybernetic 3D face tattoo VR thing is beside the point.

A Full-Scale Model of Everything? Over time? That's much better than unboxing videos, right?