google street view as time machine + aide memoire

Usually we hear people talking about Google StreetView as a virtual armchair travel tool. You can “visit” all sorts of exotic places you’ve never been to without actually traveling to them, like Stonehenge and other UNESCO World Heritage sites. With the exception of artful manipulation like The Wilderness Downtown, for me these visits remain mostly abstract and at a distance; for all their seeming-immediacy, too much information is missing: the quality of air and scent and temperature, the vibe…

That is, unless you’ve visited the place already. Then StreetView can take you back into the forgotten past, and spark surprising memories that enliven the image.

When I stumbled on their latest project: documenting the Amazon River and the Rio Negro via Street View, a vivid image of a flooded tree cast me BACK into a trip I has taken many years ago up the Amazon River Basin. I’d forgotten the particular quality of sunsets over the river, the sensual aliveness of the rain forest, how close the shore could be in some tributaries and how vast and oceanic others were. I remembered passengers on the boat I was traveling sleeping in layered hammocks, sharing the dinner of rice and black beans and sausage, the absolute dark of the jungle at night, clever houses built on stilts along the shore to keep them above the flood waters. Google Street view became an aide memoire, that activated old sense memories better than many photographs I had.

I flicked through StreetViews offerings and found myself in Siena, Italy, in the famous main square where the yearly Palio takes place, drinking grappa late into a perfect night with my friend Peggy Markel.

A StreetView of San Gimignano recalled the olive grower who sold his delicious olive oils out of a bar; the Guggenheim Museum is a dose of pure New York.

Then, I got more specific and zoomed in on the street in Rio that was my home for several weeks at the start of the Amazon adventure. Though much had changed, the street’s essential quality had not, and was rich with long-forgotten images and memories, including the couple who had nonchalantly lay in a bed made of cardboard on the sidewalk, chatting as though they were lying in bed at home.

StreetView seems actually to come alive when you’ve already visited the place on the screen; your memories overlay the image, making a kind of 4-D. Then virtual becomes sensual.

Where in your past would you like to visit?

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