Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Reminiscence -- Google Street View & Charge Cards

Here in the Chicago area, there is a lot of reaction to Google turning on their street view service in the Windy City. In-between web sessions spent Googling their own streets in an effort to catch their neighbors doing something naughty, Chicagoans are lamenting the loss of privacy that comes with the ubiquitous images of daily life broadcast on the Internet. Google, of course, keeps pointing out that all these images are taken from public streets where anyone could walk by and see the same things or even snap a phone cam image of all the silly things we do in broad daylight.

I understand Google's point, but I also understand the privacy concerns. There is something different between public indiscretion and the permanent preservation and global distribution of public indiscretion. I like to think that my temporary lapse of good judgment can somehow be winked at and quickly fade into the past. Google is aggressively bursting that delusion by catering to my own basest instincts--the same kind of narcissistic appetite that drives reality TV and twittering (and blogging) also drives our horrified fascination with seeing ourselves caught in the daily foibles of the public sphere. Google street view is voyeurism redoubled on itself.

This modern phenomenon, though, puts me in mind of an older one -- does anybody remember charge cards? No, not the credit card kind, but the index cards kept in the back of books where people used to sign their names when checking the books out of their libraries. Here, too, was a public preservation of a private activity--research and leisure--that was freely available to anyone who wanted to look at the card in the back of the book. There was no Patriot Act and no concern over privacy. That little card kept a record of the people who had borrowed that book. I remember working as a student at the Wheaton College library and finding a charge card with Billy Graham's signature. What shivers ran down my young evangelical spine back then, handling a card that had once been handled by Billy Graham himself!

The difference, of course, between an old charge card and Google street view is that the charge card was keeping a record of an intellectual pursuit, not a public indiscretion. (Unless you were one of those bold enough to sign out Madonna's Sex from your local library.) It is a sign of the times to me that our intellectual pursuits are now shrouded in library databases guarded by fiercely activist librarians while our indiscretions are broadcast globally. Or maybe I am being too negative. Maybe Google street view is also capturing random acts of heroism and decency, and perhaps those will also be immortalized the way library charge cards once kept a record of our pursuit of knowledge.

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