There's been a lot of talk about Google Streetview of late (the UK version of which launched recently). Most of it has been about privacy issues. The press focussed on the fact that people were likely to get caught out (or perhaps burgled) as a result of that black car with the Googlecam on top doing the rounds. Love affairs blown. Joints cased. Dudes walking into sex shops in Soho being highly embarrassed.
Well, perhaps that may be so. But the real story is far more interesting.
What Streetview does is give us a hint of the way that the internet is going: 3-D. With Streetview, you can walk down a street, take a left turn, swing around, cross the road, have a look at something that catches your eye - all rendered beautifully. It's extraordinary.
If I may be so bold as to make a prediction, I reckon what will happen next is that certain businesses will allow users to 'go into' buildings - to click on them and be taken inside. At the moment, using Streetview, you can just 'stand' outside say, WH Smiths at Kings Cross. But in time I reckon you'll be able to click on it, go in, stroll down an aisle and order some books. Or click on a Domino's Pizza, have a bit of a stroll around and order, well, a pizza. Go into a HMV and buy a record. Walk sheepishly into the aforementioned shop in Soho and order something for the weekend. Or perhaps you might do something slightly more cultural and explore the exhibits of the Tate Modern - yes, you might one day be able to look at a urinal and a pile of bricks in an entirely new way altogether, and from the comfort of your own home.
If this comes to pass, we're going to be looking at a 3-D internet, where sites are no longer flat pages but virtual places to be explored (and most likely, shopped in). In fact, some of this has already been happening to a degree: the Second Life community is a 3-D online world which can be explored in the manner I'm describing. And people spend millions in its virtual shops. But so far, its userbase is still only a small percentage of internet users.
A more 'general' shift to 3-D seems like the logical next step for the net - where the 3-D, virtual world becomes the default browsing experience. Websites are still, generally speaking, flat pages with text and images on them, but the creation of Streetview gives us a glimpse of an internet which is really more of a virtual world; where websites could be housed within virtual buildings; where a chatroom is a virtual bar.
And technology being what it is, all this could get very sophisticated, and fast. Virtual reality isn't just about a visual experience; there are a host of devices - from headphones to helmets to 'wired' gloves - which all serve to make the virtual experience more physical. If the internet goes 3-D, computers get very fast, and physical devices are made available that let everybody 'touch' the virtual world, we are suddenly in the realm of science fiction: the holodeck from Star Trek's Next Generation.
Captain Picard aside, in the not too distant future, the internet could well morph into a virtual world that is indistinguishable from our own. It sounds far fetched, but so did the motor car, electricity and a mouse that grew a human ear on its back.
So bizarrely Google Streetview raises an existential question. If the internet goes down this route, it will become a man-made universe, perhaps one day turning into a digital dimension running in parallel to - and feeling just as 'real' as - our own. This points to the obvious: is 'real' life actually just a digital, virtual experience? After all, pretty much all life in our 'real' universe works like a computer program, built by a set of coded instructions in our DNA. And (okay, paraphrasing a bit here) physics is basically all about electricity and numbers - just like the internet.
Damn, it's The Matrix. A Keanu Reeves film explaining the meaning of life. What an annoying conclusion to have to come to. But perhaps not as weird as you might think.