Culture | Monumentview

Google and UNESCO are making world heritage sites virtually accessible to all – but at what cost?

In the complex and borderless realm of the digital world, individuals can virtually walk along the Seine, from the Louvre to the Eiffel Tower, from the Place de la Concorde to the Grand and Petit Palais. And this is just the beginning.

A recently formed partnership between Google and UNESCO now enables an appreciation of history, culture, and travel that is as close to hand as your nearest laptop or smartphone. Internet users can now take a virtual walk around some of the world’s most remarkable natural and cultural landmarks, using Google Streetview. As part of its seemingly unending expansion, Google undertook the mission of photographing several world heritage sites using special equipment that matches an image to a specific location, using GPS devices. The images were then sewn together to create 360-degree panoramas. The effect, according to Jonathan Lister, managing director and head of Google Canada, is a “rich and immersive” new way of experiencing world heritage sites.

Together, Google and UNESCO aim to collect imagery from diverse regions throughout the world, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, Japan, Mexico, South Africa, the United States, and many countries throughout Europe. Google and UNESCO hope that eventually the site will be available to millions of people around the world who may not be able to visit the world’s heritage sites in person. Davidson Hepburn, President of UNESCO General Conference, stressed the importance and impact of this new partnership. As quoted on the Google-Unesco web site, he stated that “world heritage sites belong to the world community, irrespective of their geographical location in keeping with UNESCO’s world heritage convention. UNESCO seeks to promote the identification, promotion, and preservation of cultural and natural heritage considered to be of outstanding value to humanity, and this partnership with Google will help make the sites accessible to all, increase awareness, and encourage participation in the preservation of these treasures. Heritage is our legacy of the past; what we live with today and what we pass on to future generations.”

The opportunity that results from this partnership is, without a doubt, a hugely progressive step toward opening the doors to the world’s oldest and most precious offerings. It is a cutting-edge technology that enables users to overcome barriers to travel, such as limited time and funds. While the partnership has received widespread support, it hasn’t come without controversy. Many wonder how is it affecting the cultural and affective meanings of the world’s heritage sites; others have argued that it reshapes social and cultural knowledge, vision, and space. What’s certain is that the effects of this phenomenon have yet to be determined.

The rarely articulated ambivalence toward the Google-UNESCO initiative is captured by Anna Leask, professor of tourism management at Edinburgh Napier University and an expert in the area of heritage attraction visitor management. Leask points out that on one hand, “it allows greater awareness of scale and context, so may aid understanding.” On the other hand, though, the experience has “no atmosphere.” Herein lies the issue: can the virtual experience enable us to become intimately familiar with these wondrous sites, and the historical significance that accompanies them, in the absence of the full human experience? The modern global world is marked by the substitution of face-to-face interaction with online networking; is this inevitable for our relations with history, geography, and culture as well?
In his writings about modernity, sociologist Anthony Giddens discusses the notion of “disembeddedness,” or the “lifting out” of social relations from local contexts of interaction and their restructuring across indefinite spans of time and space. Along with this disembeddedness comes a reordering of social relations and a sense of disorientation. While the world heritage sites will be available for us to experience visually, across time and space, there will inevitably be the effects of disembedding that Giddens describes. We will not be able to savour the smell, touch, or sound of these sites, which are as satisfying in many ways as the images of the sites. We will not hear the crowds uttering words of admiration and we will not be able to tell stories of how we stood in line for hours just to be part of this history. These sites will not linger in our hearts and minds in the same way.

The concern about how gratifying the virtual experience may be, and how it may ultimately change our perceptions of world heritage sites, has yet to play out. While members of Google and UNESCO stress the importance of universal accessibility, framing virtual online walks as enhanced versions of reality, Leask considers virtual visits less monumental. She suggests that people will continue to travel to the sites and that the technology will take on an informational function; it will more likely “be used by tour operators, travel agents, and individual travellers, while educators will find it useful for planning and delivering material.” Lister agrees, assuring that “this is not a substitute for travel, but rather a complementary factor.”

There is no denying that, as is the case with all technology, there are costs and benefits. It may be the case that more exposure, more information, and greater access to world heritage sites will lead to a greater desire to see them, to more funding, and to more diligent preservation. Furthermore, virtual visits to the world heritage sites allow entry into spaces that are closed to the public; Leask points out that it is difficult to get to certain destinations, and virtual access may be the only access there is.

While many disagree that this new approach to travel via technology is an entirely positive step, the efficiency and speed that is offered by the Google-UNESCO partnership matches the growing ideology of the 21st century. As Lister points out, “Internet allows you to snack at information in bytes; you can multitask and visit the sites.” The notion of “snack travel” is fitting in our new world of condensed, Twitter-like interactions. It is consistent with the views of media experts who have reflected on the growing ability of media to satisfy the need for easily accessible distraction from modern life. Todd Gitlin, a communications scholar, talks about “the efficient production of sentiment,” suggesting that media artifacts that quickly and easily elicit an affective response will be increasingly enjoyed over high art. Through “snack travel,” the partnership between Google and UNESCO enables just such an efficient interaction to occur.