Will Self: PsychoGeography

Welcome to Google Earth
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I'm not going to go on holiday this year; instead I'm going to stay home and gently, deliberately claw out an open-cast mine in my back garden. When I've managed to haul up about 10 tons of coal (using the children as pit ponies), I'm going to draw up a deckchair, set fire to the carboniferous fruit of my labours, and watch it burn, burn, burn, while I read back numbers of inflight magazines which I've purloined from British Airways, Qantas, Virgin, Ryanair, and all the other carriers I've patronised over the years.

From time to time I will put on a sleep mask, or some acrylic socks. Every day or so, I will brush my mouldering yellow tooth stumps with one of those flimsy, disposable toothbrushes, then I will sleep the sleep of the just consumer, secure in the knowledge that while I may have gone nowhere, none the less I've managed to flagrantly exceed my carbon emissions allowance for the year, and thereby contributed to the inexorable rise to World Dominance of the Mighty British Economy.

When this palls (or the pall of inky-black smoke descends on me), I will leap into my six-wheel-drive Mitsubishi Inuit and drive the 200 yards to my local internet café, the Sylver Surfer. Here I will log on to Google Earth and go visit friends, family and exotic destinations, all with a few, lazy flicks of my lily-white tourist fingers. Ah! Google Earth, what a blissful thing it is. I realise that I'm a late adopter when it comes to this stupendous technology, which can shrink the world until it looks like a grain of sand, then enlarge it until you can see individual grains of sand on tropic beaches. But now I've been to Google Earth I'm not sure I ever want to get on a plane again.

Down at the Sylver Surfer there was some chitchat about Google Earth as Syl - the eponymous boss - faffed around downloading it. "Some people say it's in real time," he laughed, "but obviously it's not. Still, I can tell which day the satellite images were taken on from where my car's parked, coz it's the only red one in the street." The Google Earth main menu appeared on the screen, and our indolent point-of-view plunged towards it. Down and down we went, hurtling towards the surface. First the Thames Estuary, then the sprawl of London, and finally the very South Lambeth Road we were on began to resolve itself out of the green-greyish computer mush.

Syl's red car was parked outside. "Hmm, I haven't brought it to work for a week or so." I directed him to take us up the street and into my road. From 150 feet up I could see my own car parked outside my house. "Um, Syl, the trees all appear to be rather leafy for February - I'd say this is London last autumn at the inside," I observed. And that's just one of the many reasons why it's better to hover above Google Earth than walk upon the real one. For on Google Earth it's often last autumn; that last, poignant autumn, when you walked hand-in-hand with Clothilde down to the milking shed, and she squeeze-squeeze-squeezed.

We decided to try and visit some restricted portions of real Earth and see what they were like on Google Earth. Syl chose Area 51, the secret military establishment in Roswell, New Mexico, where aliens were, allegedly, picked apart in the 1950s. Yeah, yeah, I know, who would've imagined a computer geek would be a conspiracy theorist. Up and away from south London we swooped and panned, and then zoomed down once more into the sable wastes of New Mexico. Soon we could descry security fences, berms, tracks and troughs. "Nothing there - but I bet it's a fake," Syl said. "They've just patched it in to fool us." What did he expect, ET with a speech bubble?

Actually, in fairness to Syl, once he'd left me to muck around with the programme myself I soon discovered even more anomalous things on Google Earth. Baghdad, for example. Real Baghdad is dominated by the Green Zone, whereas Google Earth Baghdad is distinguished by a post some surf twerp has appended to a lake, which reads: "Gee, this lake is really neat, it looks just like a rabbit." And while real Earth's flora and fauna may vary along with its political systems, it is at least all the same resolution. By contrast the only parts of Google Earth which are in focus are those gazed upon by the multitude; if a tree falls in the forests of this perceiver-dependent realm, no satellite sees it.

Then there's Google Earth's twisted third dimension. You can look at the planet in elevation as well as plan, but if you do all the buildings are hopelessly skewed like snaggle teeth. London looks like Amsterdam does on an acid trip. Which means, of course, that while you wouldn't want to live on Google Earth all the time, it's a perfect holiday destination.