Google Earthlings

It never occurred to me that Google Earth could alter the course of a young man’s life.

Then again, it also never occurred to me that Twitter could significantly assist a national uprising in Iran.  So what do I know?

In one of the most enchanting, heartwarming pieces of reporting I have read in many a moon, titled, “A Home at the End of Google Earth,” David Kushner recounts in the November 2012 issue of Vanity Fair the true story of an Indian-born man who, having been raised by adoptive parents in Australia, endeavors to find his birth parents and childhood home using only his wits and Google Earth.

The man’s name is Saroo.  He is 30 years old.  Twenty-five years prior, he became permanently separated from his family in a bustling train station somewhere in India.  The train took off, Saroo fell asleep, and when he woke up, he had no idea where he was or how to get home.  He was illiterate; everything he knew about his home was visual.

Get where the story is headed?  You are correct:  Following his natural curiosity all these years later, Saroo reconstructs a few key locales that have stuck in his memory and takes to Google’s repository of satellite imagery to “follow the breadcrumbs” (as he puts it) back to his place of origin.  I wouldn’t dream of revealing the ending to this saga; suffice it to say it would be a mistake to walk out of the theater before it’s over.

What makes Saroo’s tale so charming is its timelessness—the search for one’s home and identity has never gone out of style—yet simultaneously it is very much a comment on modern technology, which, in the wrong hands, can be a profoundly unsexy avenue for a great, old-fashioned yarn.

But this story ennobles the technology, just as the pangs of revolution in Iran in 2009 ennobled Twitter in ways that even Jack Dorsey, the website’s creator, could not possibly have anticipated.  Bill Maher said at the time, “Twitter didn’t save Iran.  Iran saved Twitter.”  Indeed it did.  But is this not a distinction without a difference?  Isn’t all newfangled gadgetry just the newest, shiniest means to the same old ends?

Everyone my age remembers the Hey Arnold! Christmas episode, which originally aired in 1996, whose central drama involves its titular character tracking down the long-lost daughter of a friend through a federal office worker, who cautions that such a search “could take hours—maybe even days!”  I am reminded, also, of the moment in Almost Famous when the Rolling Stone editor marvels at the efficiency of a state-of-the-art transcription machine, raving, “It only takes 18 minutes a page!”

Technology may change, but we humans pretty much stay the same.

Perhaps for that reason, moments like these force one to reflect upon the profound role that chance plays in the positioning of each of us in time and space.  And how for all the dominion we have over our machines, our machines exert an equal force of influence over us.

Had Saroo been born a century (or a decade) earlier, he would not have had Google’s amazing toy with which to retrace his existence from the comfort of his own laptop.  The effort to retrace his steps would involve an exorbitant amount of actual legwork, and most probably would never have gotten underway.

Christopher Hitchens, in writing his 2005 biography of Thomas Jefferson, reflected with sadness and frustration that, for all of Jefferson’s brilliance and curiosity about the natural world, he nonetheless operated in a “pre-Darwinian time,” in which certain assumptions we now take for granted were not yet known or even hypothesized.

Indeed, ponder these things long enough and the entirety of world history seems up for grabs.  Taking all the human knowledge accumulated in the last two centuries, imagine what a figure like Jefferson could do were he to reappear today.

And what delights await our own descendents two centuries hence?  Considering how the way of the world has evolved within our lifetimes thus far, the possibilities for the future are positively awe-inspiring.

We are stardust, as an old rock ‘n’ roller once wrote, and we exist in a web of interdependence with the rest of the universe in ways we do not always appreciate.  But it is worth reflecting upon from time to time, if only to keep us grounded and humble.

The world is a marvelous place, and we didn’t build all of it ourselves.

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One thought on “Google Earthlings

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