Instant knowledge at the price of wonder

In the past few months, I have come to frequently use the “free-of-charge, downloadable, virtual globe program” (as trusty Wikipedia tells me) known as Google Earth. Now, I don’t profess to being a computer nerd, or anything close to it, but it didn’t take me long to download and see for myself what everyone was talking about.

In a few seconds, I had gone from looking at the Earth as a blue marble in space to zooming right down through the atmosphere into incredibly detailed images of entire cities with individual houses, buildings, roads, and cars easily discernible. Needless to say, I spent much of the night zooming in and out, arriving at the Eiffel Tower one second and the Statue of Liberty the next.

While a program like this is delightful for those who like visiting different places, albeit virtually, or even just to aerially fly over your own neighbourhood, it’s not without its issues.

Privacy is one that naturally comes to mind. A headline in a newspaper article recently read: “Google Earth zooms in on sunbather.” It came with a link to a Youtube video which, sure enough, did show someone zooming right down to Holland, complete with sound effects, and eventually focusing on a hapless sunbather reclining on a beach chair in the Hague, entirely unaware that a satellite was tracking his actions a few thousand miles above and making it available to all and sundry, or at least, those with a computer and broadband internet connection (and enough time on their hands). The video garnered well over 2 million views and counting, leading the sunbather to probably ask himself: “Whatever happened to good, old-fashioned privacy?” I wouldn’t disagree with him. While the images we see on Google Earth are anywhere from several months to two years old, further tweaking may conceivably result in spying on other people’s actions in the not-so-distant future. More alarming, though, is the risk this potentially poses to a country’s national security—terrorists being one group who could use this information to their advantage.

There’s a saddening aspect to this too. Not even ten years ago, when Youtube and Google Earth and Wikipedia didn’t exist, I, and I’m sure others, will remember having an actual globe instead of a virtual one, looking at countries and places that were exciting because of their distance and subsequent “exotic” appeal. There was a certain comfort in knowing that there were some things that were out of reach. It seems to me that when an elementary school student can get information on anything they want within a few milliseconds by using the Internet, having instantaneous access to knowledge comes at the price of a sense of wonder. That sense of wonder piques human curiosity and leads to exploration and discovery. I can’t help but think that today’s younger generation will grow up skipping those vital steps and settle into a desensitized mindset that may well go against progress in the future.

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