Memory is a fickle thing. As far as my brain is concerned, I didn’t exist before age three. Remembering four or five is easier, but there are holes. Thankfully, all it takes are some voyeuristic navigation tools to fill them.
Google Maps and Street View. These burrs in the side of privacy advocates and “get off my lawn” technology-distrusting geezers are what I’ve found most useful when it comes to rebuilding hazy memories from a life long past.
For me the tandem constitutes a full-fledged memory machine, filled to the brim with nostalgia and convenience. Because, you see, the world is too damn big, my schedule too packed with useless shit, for me to go traipsing back to my childhood jaunts on a whim. Physically, I mean, but there’s a web app for that.
We’ll Always Have Burke
I doubt I’ll ever go back to Burke, Virginia, the town where I grew up a scrappy, Big Wheels-riding kid in a planned neighborhood for Navy families. Nor will I physically reconnect with Clearwater, Florida, where I was born.
Virtually, I’ve been back to these places dozens of times over the past few years. I’ve camped out near that Burke neighborhood sidewalk in the same place I did as a 4-year-old kid, staring skyward, thinking of space.
Back then I would slam my Big Wheels (the M.A.S.K. model) to a screeching stop, the plastic wheels grinding and skidding against the concrete, and look up. Perhaps into space like I said, or into the deep blue so that those weird wispy things would dance at the edge of my vision, or—well, I don’t remember why, really, just that I did.
And then there’s my old house. Nestled neatly at the end of Park Woods Lane, it was a two-story, unremarkable affair with a porch, potted plant hangar and a short driveway that usually held dad’s parked Camaro (mom’s hatchback got the single car garage).
No one was home the day the satellite snapped that picture (the driveway was empty), so I took my time looking it over, remembering how my dad used to keep his electric lawnmower (it had a cord!) in the rust-colored shed at the side of the house, and how the steep hill in the back led down to a small brook in the woods. Beyond that lay the Burke Racquet Ball and Swim Club, where he would occasionally take me for a swim in the Olympic-sized pool and buy me glass-bottled Veryfine juice from the vending machine.
I made sure to check out that club too. It was still there, boxy and warehouse-looking as ever, but the surrounding woods are thinner now, long since developed with the rest of Burke into an expanse of strip malls and blacktop parking lots.
It’s bittersweet to say, and entirely geeky to admit, but before Maps came along and blanketed Burke with its satellite coverage, I would have never thought in any great detail about these specific memories ever again. In passing, maybe, or randomly—perhaps when my future kid, should I have one, opens up his shin and needs his first stitches, as I did up at Patrick’s house on the hill.
Recalling that particularly messy memory with my friend Patrick was easy, by the way. All I had to do was drag the map to the right, up the slight hill on the edge of the circle, and float like a specter over his old house to search out the brick wall in back where the accident took place. As I did it just now, just to keep things fresh, I caught myself subconsciously scratching at the two inch scar, still very visible today.
Zooming in on that memory was as simple as a scroll forward. This netted a remorseful pang as I noticed the wall was gone now—the unsurprising casualty of a landscaping project, perhaps—but the memory remained, fresh and renewed, all because I had been granted the “simple,” instantaneous act of peering down from a satellite hundreds of miles in orbit.
If I were telling this story ten years ago, instead of today, these tiny, inconsequential memories would have never been recalled. I doubt I’d ever really remember what that house in Virginia looked like, or the street it was on, or the way the wide cul de sac was ringed with white sidewalk and cookie cutter homes. I could have asked my parents about these memories, sure, but the “virtual physicality” of Google StreetView is what sells the service in the end, at least for me.
There are bad memories too, of course, but I search them out anyway—perhaps to heal, or to punish, but always to remind and link back up with that old, younger Jack from the past. In Waltham, MA, for instance, there’s this light purple, three-story Victorian house up near the West Newton border that I revisit from time-to-time. I get in my little virtual Google StreetView car, navigate the route I’d take home from work in Cambridge, and park out front on Fuller Street. I can even look up and zoom in on the second story, and think back on all the memories that were created there.
For more than two years I lived on that floor with my ex-girlfriend. They were the final two years of an amazing yet ultimately doomed six-year relationship, but in StreetView’s eyes our cars are still parked happily in the driveway under overcast skies.
I haven’t visited that house recently—virtually, physically or otherwise—but during the times that I did early last year, when the awkwardness and loneliness of the single life would take over, I’d often wonder what the two of us were doing when that StreetView picture was snapped by Google’s vagabond voyeur. Then I’d spin StreetView around 180 degrees and wonder what the neighbors were doing at that point in time too. Then I’d ask myself, as I did then, why we weren’t friendlier to them.
Depressing? Yeah, I suppose it is. But it’s who we were at the time, and revisiting those memories, via a 13-inch browser window in a new apartment, allows me to reflect on how much I’ve changed for the better.
If these memory jaunts, or “childhood walks” sound familiar to you, it could be because you’ve done them yourself already, or because you, like me, have heard of Ze Frank.
I admit, until I flew down to Austin last weekend, I hadn’t heard of him, but I have now. He is, in a word, creative.
During his keynote at South by Southwest (SXSW) this year, he featured many of his eccentric web-based projects from over the years, but one in particular seemed most fitting for memory week here at Gizmodo.
He called it A Childhood Walk, and it was basically users going into StreetView to find images of places where they took walks as children. The locations were simple: a trail, a storefront, a playground. Ze then asked that participants think about those walks—those memories—and write them down. Then he published them.
The examples he showed us at SXSW were both intimate and personal. I can’t remember any off hand at the moment (Irony!), but I do remember being moved, entertained and most of all inspired by them. Some involved loves, lost loves, even death. There was a Post Secret vibe to them, but the memories were more open, and tied tightly to physical locations that both the person and the rest of the Internet could experience together within StreetView.
As I said before, I don’t think you could have this dynamic 10 years ago, or even five years ago, let alone when the Baby Boomers were growing up by candlelight or whatever it was they used to see at night back then.
I think that’s kind of unfair in a way. Think of all the location-based memories that, in essence, were forgotten long before they should have been. All the stories, especially those from their childhood. People stamp their feet when they lose a Word document, myself included, but this kind of generational memory loss, to me, is far worse. Far more meaningful, which is ironic, given that I really didn’t give it much thought until I stumbled upon a map of my old house on Park Woods Lane. Now I can revisit that place, and others, again and again. Well, at least until Google updates or the neighborhood gets torn down, anyway, but as we’ve seen all week here at Gizmodo, saving images—even after death!—is pretty easy today.
So for this—for the good Maps memories and the bad, and all the bullshit in between—I’m entirely grateful. Grateful for this, my virtual, voyeuristic memory lane.
Memory [Forever] is our week-long consideration of what it really means when our memories, encoded in bits, flow in a million directions, and might truly live forever.