I am no fan of Google or of big tech in general, and am skeptical of Silicon Valley’s techno-utopian worldview. I nonetheless have to admit that, as someone interested in the history and preservation of places, Google has produced some excellent tools: specifically, its satellite maps and Street View imagery. You may already know that Google Maps includes these features. You may not know that it is possible to view historical Street View imagery, some of it from the original 2007 launch of the feature (that is already 11 years ago). You can also view historical satellite imagery as far back as the late 1980s in Google’s desktop app Earth, which is something of an expansion of the online Maps site.

You can use these features to piece together the recent history of the built environment, or simply to see a place from a bird’s-eye view. Hunting for old images on these apps is something like metal detecting—you never know what you’ll find or how interesting it is, but there is nonetheless a certain thrill in the activity. Adding frustration is that the quality of the photos and imagery is best in the most recent years. The images that actually reveal changes in the landscape come in blurry low resolution.

Worn parking lot at a Virginia shopping center, in detailed satellite image. Copyright 2018 Google.

The historic Street View photos, which are almost always taken by a Google car with a camera contraption on top, can be very grainy, and a tree or a van often blocks whatever you’re actually looking for. The recent ones, however, are very high-quality. The satellite images too are now so sharp that you can tell whether a parking lot is cracked and pockmarked.

Every so often, the inside of a store or restaurant will have Street View imagery. These images, unlike most of the pictures taken from roads, are provided by ordinary people. Like playing an old “point-and-click” PC game where only a few of the doors open, you can make your way down a street virtually, clicking at every shop door until you’re suddenly transported inside. The photos are not staged portraits. A Google exec or contractor did not walk in and announce “Smile for Google Maps!” A couple has dinner, a pair of waitresses work the bar. One day a future historian may come across such an image and find it notable for the restaurant patrons’ now-obsolete style of dress, or for the now-defunct channel playing on the television. Just as most antiques and collectibles are merely common things from the past, much of history is only obsolete forms of everyday life.

Inside of Verve Restaurant (above) and breakroom in Tessuto Menswear (below), Somerville, NJ

There is a whole genre of content geared towards identifying people in these Google images (though the faces are automatically blurred), or finding humorous situations accidentally photographed, or finding criminals in the middle of committing crimes. You can even engage in a virtual Disneyland tour. There is an interesting and voyeuristic weirdness to it all. And adding to the strangeness is the dissonance caused by using a cutting-edge, partially crowdsourced, semi-autonomous computer application to observe snapshots of the past, or quotidian, mundane snapshots of the present. It is all distinctly “Internetty.” One senses that this, and not amateur porn or endless imported trinkets a la Amazon, is probably the sort of thing that the inventors and early enthusiasts of the Internet were hoping for.

Futurist Alvin Toffler included an anecdote in his 1970 book Future Shock in which his young daughter ran to the grocery store but ended up on the wrong block. She came back and told him, “It must have been torn down.” Only in America, he mused, could someone believe—and possibly be correct!—that a building would be unceremoniously torn down overnight. He did not predict, however, that we would one day be able to essentially watch time-lapses of our built environment on our computer screens.

In any case, let’s go back to Route 22 in New Jersey, which I’ve written about previously. In most places, as noted, Street View imagery only goes back a few years, but in some spots it goes back to 2007. For some reason the 2007 imagery can only be accessed from a few discrete spots along the highway, but once you find it you can view it for long stretches—an odd mechanic, possibly a bug, that once again makes the user experience something like a video game.

2007 and 2017 view of a diner, now a bank, on Route 22, North Plainfield, NJ

Here is a Capital One bank in 2018. 2007 imagery reveals a boarded-up seafood restaurant in a former diner, which I recall passing many times as a child. The diner itself was built around 1970. Along other stretches of Route 22, a Blockbuster appears in a small strip mall, and a shiny new Walgreens stands where there was once an iconic trapezoidal Pizza Hut. (Despite having driven down Route 22 dozens of times throughout my childhood, I did not remember these previous businesses until I found them on Street View.) That Street View begins just before the Great Recession is useful for these purposes; the post-recession era as well as the low period during the recession caused a lot of churn in the built environment. 

2007 and 2017 view of a small strip mall on Route 22, North Plainfield, NJ

Since different roads are photographed at different times—generally the more important the road, the more years of photos there will be and the more often they will be updated—one can occasionally observe the landscape change even without toggling the historical view. Along a more rural, westward stretch of Route 22 in Whitehouse Station, New Jersey, is a new-looking building split between a deli and a flooring store. If you click over to the smaller cross street, it becomes a derelict thrift shop. Depending on one’s view of tech, this can be seen as an almost humorous lapse for a multi-billion-dollar company, or as a sort of glitch in the Matrix, in the attempt to reproduce the real world through imperfect but powerful technology.

There is one final feature worth pointing out: a “3D view” in Google Earth, which aggregates Street View and satellite imagery and produces what looks like drone footage or aerial photography. As with the other imagery, it is not all current. Here is an example. The Sports Authority on the right has long since ceased to be, replaced by a Hobby Lobby.

Springfield, NJ stretch of U.S. Route 22, as seen through Google Earth 3D View. Copyright Google.

This all brings to mind an amusing formulation of Plutarch’s famous Ship of Theseus thought experiment: if none of the original stores or landmarks remain along a highway, is it the same highway? One day Google will capture the Hobby Lobby of course, and the image will change. The detritus of consumer capitalism is thusly given a second life, and a second death. One day the imagery and the computer-generated interpolations will probably be good enough that you can simulate an actual drive down the highway, perhaps aided by a VR headset.

If I were dictator, there would be no VR headsets, and there might even be no Google. But they exist. If you hate big tech, think of tech-assisted historical exploration as a kind of judo—using tech’s power, and its inherent skepticism of the past, against itself. Or just enjoy the pictures.

Addison Del Mastro is assistant editor for The American Conservative. He tweets @ad_mastro.