More from Andrew:
One of the pleasant experiences of this trip has been those moments of recognition of places and views around America’s iconic cities. When the Empire State building first looms into view, or the Golden Gate bridge first beckons from across the bay, it provides an enjoyable jolt. Just as welcome has been my recognition of familiarity for far more common places, or even foreknowledge of their layouts, simply because some of these cities are also recreated in computer games I’ve played.
As an example, while walking in Brooklyn yesterday, I looked up to see several helicopters buzzing around the water just off the bottom of Manhattan Island, with some coming in slow, looking like they were about to land. Katina suggested that there must be a helipad nearby, at which point some distant dredge of my memory overlaid the map of Liberty City, from the PC game Grand Theft Auto onto its real life counterpart New York City, leading me to point to a low pier just across the water from us. Sure enough, the helicopters continued their descent, before turning and slowly landing at the spot I was pointing too.
No computer game or photo or film could possibly recreate all the details or sensations of these environments, but at the very least I’ve come to regard this cultural experience as a form of digital tourism. For the reasons outlined in my earlier post on the magnitude of small differences, again the similarity and disparity of already well-known objects and views can lead to a pleasurable search for difference and change — a search that is impossible in an entirely foreign view (which is not without its own charms of course).
I’ve long wondered what the people of New York must think about their city being the landscape upon which so much of the West’s culture is projected. Dozens of TV shows (How I Met Your Mother, Rules of Engagement etc), movies (which love to destroy the city), and the afore-mentioned games find this city in particular alluring. I imagine they must trade-off seeing the train station they use each day being blown apart (say, Grand Central, which features in The Avengers), in return for the various cultural works dedicated as love poems to the city (see several of Woody Allen’s films). While it might be digital tourism for we Australian’s to zoom down NY’s streets via a film maker’s camera, it’s digital localism for the natives.
We came across a particularly impressive, and decidedly pre-electronic form of digital tourism today at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Painted in 1818, John Vanderlyn created a circular room, stripped of all windows and furnishings, and painted the walls with a giant panorama of the palace and gardens of Versailles. The effect for the visitor is, in what must be a forerunner to virtual reality, to feel that you almost actually there, standing on the famous steps, looking either down into the gardens or around to the fountains and buildings. Often such rooms had a skylight as the only light source, deepening the illusion. If you have the chance, it’s a must see.
While I write this post in praise of the consumption of digital tourism, for my visit to the US has certainly been rendered more enjoyable from these pleasant moments of recall, I must add a note of concern about the production of so much low quality digital tourism. This is a famous city during the summer holidays, and as such, there are swarms of tourists everywhere. Most of them — thanks to now ubiquitous smart phones and cheap cameras — spend half their time still viewing these real world experiences digitally, peering through their viewfinders and screens to get another slightly blurry shot of a famous artwork or monument. I am not a photographer, and I have great admiration for photography that captures moments, moods and time. But to call these millions of screen grabs of the world two feet in front of the tourists “photographs” seems to do an injury to the art. It’s closer to digital graffiti. “I WAZ HERE” is all these millions of photos of famous faces and places really represents. But, this is a well trod path of criticism, so I leave it here only for comparison.
Digital tourism is here to stay. Increasingly we will have already experienced any locations before we visit them, or even one day, just step into a computer simulation and skip the whole trip all together. I’m excited to see these developments, and keen to encourage it. The culture I’ve consumed before travelling to this country has made my time here significantly more enjoyable. But I’m also keen to ensure what culture we produce for others to build their views is of sufficient quality to do justice. So that when you are here, with the smell of the street in your nose and the uneven pavement underfoot, the grandeur of these famous structures really comes to life.