L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 315, April 17, 2005
"It won't be long now!"
Special to TLE
Occasionally I put a damper on a column. What I mean is, sometimes I pick a topic because I think I'll have fun writing about it, but then I write about it and turn it into a sermon with a compulsive need to mention "the government." I hate when I do this. I found it hard to make fun of last year's election, for instance, without thinking: "Oh, _if_only_ this were a laughing matter." The problem is, I'm supposed to make a point every time I write an article. And it's hard to make a point without reading into things. Just once, I'd like to write about something important without trying to say something important about it. Just once. Just for fun.
The reason I'm telling you this isn't because you give a damn, or because I'm on some crazy glasnost and perestroika kick, but because the topic I've chosen this week is something so incredibly cool that it kills mekills meto think I'm going to have to make a point about it. Why? Because its implications are so potentially far-reaching that I fear there's no way I can make a point without ruining it for both of us.
I am talking, of course, about Google Maps.
Last week, Google introduced satellite images to its map database. That's right. Satellite images. So now, when you look up an address, you get an aerial picture of it. I don't think you understand how groovy this is. It's so groovy that I whipped out the word "groovy" just to prove it. Granted, we're not talking live satellite images here. They're still-shots, and supposedly they're a year or two old. But still. I don't even care if this thing has an actual purposelike looking up directionsanymore. I spent an hour just staring at the top of my house last Wednesday. And as we speak, I'm sitting in my house and looking at my house at the same time. That's freaking awesome. It's melting my mind just thinking about it. If you don't believe me, check out maps.google.com and plug in your own address. Go on. Try it. I'll be here with Qtips when you get back.
Google Maps is now officially the greatest thing since sliced bread. In fact, it's greater than sliced bread. Sliced bread is overrated. Google Maps is officially the greatest thing ever. Except the bible. And beer. And maybe the theme song to Perfect Strangers. But other than that.
This brings me back to the point I was making about making points. There was no question in my mind that I would write about Google Maps this week. How could I write about anything else? (Literally. I was too busy zooming in and out on distant cities to pay attention to the news.) But now that I've gone with this story, I find myself facing the inevitable question: Do these satellite images constitute an invasion of privacy? I've been dreading this part of the article. It's just such a bummer.
The obvious answer would seem to be "yes" here. There's a real Big Brother flavor to this technology. In fact, it has CIA ties. And while the images aren't close up enough to see people walking around naked in their backyards (not that I looked...), there's still something eerie about it. I mean, this is just the first step. Who knows where this will take us? Eventually, these still-shots will probably evolve into real-time streaming media for the whole world to see. Suddenly you and I will be subject to review by any two-bit punk in Wyoming logging on to find the quickest route to his neighborhood Sears. That's creepy. Make no mistake.
But at the same time, maybe this isn't an invasion of privacy after all. Maybe it just feels like one.
If a guy in Council Bluffs, Iowa, can check out my roof, so what? I don't love the idea that he's watching me. I'd certainly kick him off my lawn if he walked up with a camera. But anyone with a plane or a helicopter can see the exact same thing he can see on Google Maps. Granted, not everyone owns a plane or a helicopter. But not everyone's going to look up my home on Google Maps, either. There's sort of a balance there.
Maybe Google's new service will lead privacy advocates to think vertically. Maybe it'll lead property rights advocates to do the same. Maybe, if we're lucky, it'll lead us to focus on what's inside our homes instead of everyone else's. Or maybe you'll forget Google Maps altogether after reading this uniquely self-aware article. (Don't. You should seriously try it out.)
Airespace VP Alan Cohen once remarked that, "Google, combined with Wi-Fi, is a little bit like God. God is wireless, God is everywhere, and God sees and knows everything." If nothing else, these satellite images certainly give us a God's-eye-view. I'm pretty sure that'll make some people uncomfortable. Personally, I'm more concerned with traffic cameras, forced mental screenings, military conscription, and Congress's growing obsession with athletes' urine than I am with that dude in Council Bluffs. But I can see the other side. So if it's Big Brother that worries you here, or just somebody's little sister, look at it like this: At least Google Maps lets you watch them, too.
Imagine that: A checks-and-balances system and a fun way to kill an hour staring at your own house. Neat.