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The ghosts in our machines


For the New Yorker, Matthew J. X. Malady writes about “winks,” or unexpected connections with lost loved ones, and finding a Google Maps photo of his deceased mother. In partial below, the full version here.

Every now and again, when I’ve been working for too many hours without a break or have spent an entire day writing something, I jump on Google Maps Street View and get lost in my past.

The images on Street View, taken by fancy cameras that are usually—though not always—strapped to the tops of cars, are a boon for basement-dwelling architecture buffs and those who want to see the world without going broke. I use the site for far less cosmopolitan purposes. I track down baseball diamonds and bike trails I played on as a kid. I locate comic-book shops from back in the day, old college dorms, hotels my family stayed in during summer vacations back when we took summer vacations as a family. I plop down in places I’ve been, places that have meant something to me, and look around. Then I compare the contemporary to what’s in my memory. It’s a way to unwind, a respite from more taxing laptop-based endeavors.

In some cases, the ball field or building I remember no longer exists. (I would never call the crummy two-story house I lived in during the summer between undergrad and law school paradise, but it was, in fact, knocked down, paved over, and turned into a parking lot.) Other times, I’ve happened upon more pleasant changes—beautiful flowerbeds that weren’t there in 1992, a new in-ground swimming pool at the rec center, better paint choices. When I really want to dig in, I’ll treat these Street View adventures as mini treasure hunts, attempting to come up with the most obscure and faintly held memory of a place, to make my search for that location as difficult as possible. Earlier this year, I remembered a weird middle-school trip I took to somewhere in Georgia for what amounted to a national convention of nerdy kids. (Its official name was Academic Games.) I was twelve at the time, and all I recalled about the event was that it was held at some gigantic 4-H-type place in the woods and that I lost the fishing rod I had brought all the way from Pennsylvania when I was showing off for some girls. (My grip slipped while casting, and I accidentally chucked it into the lake.) Anyway, I found that place on Street View. The campground is just north of Eatonton, Georgia. My fishing rod is somewhere at the bottom of Rock Eagle Lake.

That was a tough one. It took me a while to find.