Shopping is mortifying because shopping is war. Stores are not meant to sell me what I want, but to make me want what they have. Often I feel like Frodo in Mordor: I'm deep in enemy territory, and the easiest thing to do is put on the ring, surrender. Just buy something, the store tells me, and you'll be happy. In fact, you'll be one of us.
When it comes to electronics, the act of buying is also a roll of the dice, or if you prefer, an act of faith. On average, these products do about 80% of what they're advertised to do, and the obstacles to returning them ensure that those responsible never find out how defective their products are. Remote controls elevate the defect to a design principle. My television's remote has 58 buttons. Four of them seem to do something, but only if I shake the remote firmly while pressing them, as though I were an angry old man with Parkinson's disease.
And yet I bought a plasma screen. I'm looking at it now, from two meters away on the couch. I never connected it to a television signal, of course; I get all the broadcast television I need at the gym. Rarely, I use it for movies. Mostly it's my computer screen for writing. But its highest use, as it turns out, is Google Earth.
Today, for example, my friend and mentor Alan Greiner wrote to me about his recent trip to Barcelona, so I opened up Google Earth and followed along:
Yes, that's Plaza de Catalunya right in the centre, on the seam that separates the old city (lower right) from the perfectly gridded 19th-century Eixample district in the upper left. Of the latter my friend writes:
... and rather than waiting for him to describe what he means, I just go look. Sure enough ...
... so when I return to his explanation, my aerial view can dance with my friend's street-level eye ...
... and I end up with a richer impression than either perspective would have on its own.
What I can't show you, with screen-shots in a blog, is the freedom and lightness with which I move about in Google Earth, zooming or panning to follow the lightest breezes of curiosity. (What's that? Well, let's look ... wait a minute, where is the water? ... zoom out .. oh, there it is, so it's facing the water, see? ... but what's that over there? ...). It is, in short, the fundamental sensation of the flaneur, the aimless pedestrian free to follow the slightest impulses. I've written as a flaneur of Sydney and Delhi, and my friend is another of the species:
... and reading this I let my eye wander over the city on Google Earth, zooming in for detail or out for context, until I find examples of the jumble he describes. There's actually a block called Illa de la Discòrdia, the "block of discord," where houses by three famous architects, working in different styles, sit clashingly side by side, like enemies consigned for eternity to the same pit of hell. Zoom into it on Google Earth, and of course there's a link to a photo, actually a beautiful 1906 rendering.
I didn't mean to lead you far into that distraction, but for the flaneur, distraction itself is the point. Gaze at almost any city on Google Earth, and something will arouse your curiosity. Zoom in, poke around. In one optional layer, little blue dots on the aerial image are links to photographs that various travelers have posted. Looking at Barcelona, then, I can immediately identify the main tourist attractions, such as the Sagrada Familia, from the mass of blue dots buzzing around them like flies.
In some countries, of course, there's also Street View, photos taken at regular intervals by Google camera-cars driving along each street. They are the opposite of tourist photos: pure records of whatever is there, important or not.
Street View might appear to let us be flaneurs worldwide from our livingrooms. But while Street View arouses this desire it fails to satify it. For one thing, the photos are static, and at street-level the real life and texture of the city can't be seen in a static image. Someday, perhaps there will be Street View video, with sounds and smells and maybe even virtual experiences -- young people of your preferred sex hailing you seductively in cafes etc. That, finally, may be the solution to the carbon footprint problem of air travel.
But more important, Street View is obviously the view of a dead mechanical eye. Even the most amateur photographer would not have taken the Street View photograph above; there is no subject, no point of view, no figure and ground -- in short, there is no desire. Nobody cares, so when I look at Street View I usually don't care either. Once I'm on the street, or inside a building, I defer to good writing by a real flaneur, such as my friend Alan:
Yes, by definition, the flaneur never plans, and in this respect I'm like a flaneur when I follow along. At home in Sydney with my plasma TV and Google Earth, I can soar and dive over Barcelona like an obnoxious daredevil pilot, whose darkest secret is that he'd rather be a pedestrian.