Google Street Viewers can now raft the Grand Canyon


Back in the early 1980s, the French philosopher Michel de Certeau went to the 110th floor of the then-brand-new World Trade Center and looked down at Manhattan. It was a revelation to him:

“To be lifted to the summit of the World Trade Center is to be lifted out of the city’s grasp. When one goes up there, he leaves behind the mass that carries off and mixes up in itself any identity of authors or spectators. His elevation transfigures him into a voyeur. It puts him at a distance. … It allows one to read (the world), to be a solar Eye, looking down like a god. The exaltation of a scopic and gnostic drive: the fiction of knowledge is related to this lust to be a viewpoint and nothing more.”

Far down below, he wrote, are the walkers, “whose bodies follow the thicks and thins of an urban ‘text’ they write without being able to read it.”

The passage comes from de Certeau’s essay “Walking in the City,” in which he expands upon this contrast between the aloof, high-altitude “readers” of the city — e.g. urban planners, cartographers and the like — and the “writers” swarming through the streets in a seemingly chaotic manner. When I first read the essay a few years ago, I couldn't help but wonder what de Certeau would have made of the Internet, particularly Google Maps, that crazy tool that gives those of us sitting at our desks in rural Colorado that 110th floor view of Manhattan — or for that matter, of any "hidden" canyon in the world — at the mere click of a mouse.

What would he have to say about our ability to use that tool to zoom instantly down to the walker’s or driver’s view from street-level? And what kind of mind-boggling meaning can be derived from the fact that a person can be both "reader" (high altitude viewer) and "writer" (the walker) at the same time via his smart phone’s glowing screen? Even as he walks, he can follow his own movements on his phone, from the viewpoint of the 11oth floor. It's enough to tie one's mind in a knot.

Last week, Google took things to another level of mind-f**k by introducing its “Street View” feature of the entire length of the Grand Canyon. You no longer need a raft, a permit or 120 cans of beer to float the Grand Canyon; you just need a computer. It’s truly amazing, but also on some level disturbing, and not just because the software that blurs out all human presence — in this case the raft and the rafters — has caused a disembodied, cowboy-hatted human head to bob down the river in some shots.

It’s not that I’m a Luddite, or someone who shies away from maps because they have been used to colonize people and nature. I've always loved maps. Since its inception, Google Maps has been one of the most valuable tools in my journalism tool kit. Street view allows me to get the lay of the land of a place before I go on a reporting visit, or to refresh my memory of a scene afterwards. Satellite view offers big picture insight into how vast open pit mines, power plants or subdivisions have altered the landscape. Poring over the maps is also a guilty pleasure, a way to drift idly around a place, be it Southern France or canyon country, daydreaming of future journeys. It's a bit of landscape pornography, I suppose, enabling one to experience a physical place from a completely disembodied viewpoint without getting dirty. Google Maps and Earth allow us to be detached voyeurs of land and architecture, just like de Certeau up on the World Trade Center.

Google's purpose in floating its panopticon-cam down the river is somewhat revealed by its partner in the project, the conservation group American Rivers. In an introductory blog post, Chris Williams, Senior Vice President of the group, wrote:

“Now with Google Street View, you can ride the whitewater rapids, cruise the sleepy river bends, and discover the side canyons that make the Colorado River a treasured resource. While you admire its grandeur, remember that the river is also at risk … it’s also one of the most endangered, dammed, diverted and plumbed rivers in the world, thanks to a century of management policies and practices that have promoted the use of Colorado River water at an unsustainable rate.”

By exposing more people to this amazing place via Street View, the argument goes, Google will create a larger constituency aimed at protecting the place, or, in this case, the river. It’s a noble cause, but the reasoning is tenuous. The strains on the Colorado River aren't likely to have much of an effect on the Grand Canyon, where the consistent water flows — raftable year-round — are made possible by the very plumbing Williams mentions. As long as Nevada, California and Arizona demand their share of the river's water, those flows will continue. If they want to save the river, Google should do a Street View of the lower reaches of the riverbed, which is often dry, if far less magnificent.

Having said that, there are threats to the canyon itself that Street View could address. Take the panorama on a stormy day at the confluence of the Little Colorado and the Colorado, which is awe-inspiring even on a laptop screen. The Navajo Nation has plans to drop a tram down into the canyon here and further develop the area. Familiarizing folks with the grandeur might inspire them to fight to protect it (or to encourage development, to make it easier to access).

Looking upriver at the Confluence of the Little Colorado and Colorado Rivers, where the Navajo Nation would like to put a resort style development. Source: Google Maps.

That’s assuming that the street view experience is real enough to make people care. As soon as I heard about the project, I went to Google Maps and dropped the little Street View icon into the canyon, hoping to relive moments from a raft trip I took down the river some 20 years ago: The way one’s sense of scale is distorted by the massive Redwall Cavern; the burning pit of fear as the roar of Lava Falls became audible; the magnificent sense of serenity one can discover lying on one’s back as the raft lazily drifts down flat water beneath towering cliffs. Street View was, as one might expect, a mere shadow of the real experience — Lava Falls looks utterly benign on the computer screen — but it is enough to trigger a memory here and there, and to make one want to go back to the canyon. But there’s also something terribly empty about Street View, whether you're "traveling" a town's street or one of the most magnificent stretches of river in the world. When it encounters humanity, Google blurs it out, leaving the scene bereft of life. Also lacking is the constant refrain of water splashing against the raft's tubes and the oars scraping in the locks, the smell of water on stone, the chill of the wind in one’s hair or the burning of the nasal enema that results when your raft crashes through a muddy red wave on Hermit Rapid.

The Google Street View blur -- er, raft -- drops into Lava Falls, looking decidedly more wimpy than in real life. Believe me. Source: Google Maps.

We are given the viewpoint of de Certeau’s walker, but with an experience no more alive than that of the elevated viewer, looking far down below on the city. “… the city, for its part, is transformed for many people into a desert in which the meaningless, indeed the terrifying, no longer takes the form of shadows but becomes, as in Genet’s plays, an implacable light that produces this urban text without obscurities, which is created by a technocratic power everywhere and which puts the city dweller under control (under the control of what? No one knows): ‘The city keeps us under its gaze, which one cannot bear without feeling dizzy.’”

That was de Certeau, who died in 1986, eerily presaging the arrival of Google Maps. A few years earlier, another philosopher also seems to have predicted the arrival of Street View in his beloved Grand Canyon.

“The utopian technologists foresee a future for us in which distance is annihilated and anyone can transport himself anywhere, instantly,” wrote Ed Abbey in The Journey Home. “Big deal, Buckminster. To be everywhere at once is to be nowhere forever, if you ask me. That’s God’s job, not ours.”

Or, as the case may be, Google's job.


Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News. He tweets @jonnypeace.

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