A man's feet, looking down from the top of a building

The view from above

A satellite image of Forth Vean, the street where I grew up.
A satellite image of Forth Vean, the street where I grew up.

This is a satellite image of the house where I grew up.

When I was young we had a real photograph of this view framed on our living room wall. It had been taken by a local man who, as the only pilot in the village, had hired a photographer and flown him across it, to take photos of all the houses.

He advertised them in the Post Office, and at local craft fairs, and the villagers would stop next to the stacks of photographs and flick through them one by one, searching for their own home. Along the way, they would spot the houses of friends and relatives, pointing and exclaiming their excitement.

My parents did exactly that, and then purchased and mounted the picture, as did many others. Neighbours would discuss and compare their own photographs in the street, and this little phenomenon became a sense of pride in our community.

At this young age, I would often look at this photo, taken high above the home I knew. I had never flown before; never seen the roof of my house. I would sit and look, imagining that this must be what the birds saw when I heard them calling and singing. It stank of freedom, and had a strange other-wordly aura.

By the time I first set foot on a plane two years later, I had moved to a different house, in another country. I had no frame of reference, I’d never seen the roof of this new home, but I remembered that photograph. As I travelled overhead, I stared out of the window for the entire flight, trying to see the roof of my house. I had no concept of distance and countries and borders. All the way over Germany, Belgium, France and then England, I stared and stared, knowing that my house was somewhere in the rolling terrain below.

When we arrived in England, I ran to my father in excitement. “I saw our house! I saw our house!” I shouted, not because I actually had seen it, but because I’d looked at every single building below that tiny plane window, and therefore one of them must have been ours.

It is now eighteen years later, and the picture which fueled my imagination so much is long since lost. That one photograph, nothing but paper and ink and a wooden frame, opened my mind to the idea that the world I lived in had a z-axis, and now sits discarded in a cupboard or box and forgetten.

I look back and remember that picture well, and struggle to see where, in this modern age, children will be able to excercise the same imagination and curiosity. The satellite image I embedded above only took me 30 seconds to find; but I didn’t frame it and hang it or discuss it with friends, I simply closed my browser window.

As much as I love the community that has been built around the web, I wish that I could bring back those days when the world and the simplest things within it were so awe-inspiring, because I worry that as my daughter grows up she will have so much information available to her that she’ll feel no need to go looking for it. Pictures and maps and videos and virtual three-dimensional models of every little corner of the earth are so prevalent online that they no longer attract our attention, and almost negate the need to visit the places they depict. Stories of disasters, tragedies and personal struggles are no longer as potent, so numbed we are through over-exposure. Friendly debates no longer take place, as the answer to an argument is a few taps on a smartphone away.

It is as though as a society we have been climbing a rope, higher and higher, trying to get a better view of the world, just like the pilot. Except now, as we are nearing the top, we are so high, and we are faced with so much of the world below us that we are simply incapable of feeling the awe which we anticipated. We are simply staring, unsure which way to turn, such that we cannot find the enthusiasm, the innovation and the time which we need to bind thread and make the rope longer. Instead we have no choice but to gingerly climb back down, or simply let go.

And I feel partly responsible, as I am helping contribute to this impasse. I build websites and write articles that people will read alone, and then post on social media for other people to then read alone. I am helping to build a web which is slowly nullifying the enjoyment of exploration and discovery, as experienced by the pilot, the photographer, and the many families who purchased a photo of their home.

We need a shift of direction. The web is already prevalent in every area of our lives; we need to stop building it so that it only improves and contributes to itself. So much of the focus in open-source and publicly accessible software is on building “a better web”, but what if instead we could work together to build a better world. What if we could write software that contributed to society, rather than providing it with more distractions?

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