Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The Back Side of Water


While we are on the subject of pointless "interactivity," I have to bring up my other pet peeve, the "virtual tour" that graces many institutional websites. A case in point is the National Transportation Safety Board, a site that I otherwise will admit a certain affection for, because it offers pages en fran├žais, as well as en espag├▒ol . . . a rarity despite a shared continent with Canada. The NTSB presents a 360 degree virtual tour of the student lounge, conference room, and lecture hall.

It's not that I have anything against the idea of visually situated websites intrinsically; no one loves Google Earth or live cams more than I do. But this isn't the Grand Canyon or the view from the top of St. Peter's we're talking about: this is a conference room with generic chairs in dusty rose. Besides, the technology often doesn't do justice to even genuinely scenic places like Yellowstone National Park or these sites in California. And since the stated purpose of the agency is transportation safety, wouldn't it be more useful to have an airfield or a railroad switching yard to peruse?

People like Jonathan Steuer are probably right about the importance of interactivity and vividness in new media. But I believe that it is just as essential to think rhetorically when deploying web-based technologies that emulate the experience of presence.

The 360 degree Capitol virtual tour is perhaps more worthwhile, because post 9-11 it is remarkably difficult to access our legislative spaces as a spectator, unlike countries such as Germany where tourists can take in a stunning aerial view of the parliament. For similar reasons of access, the Space Shuttle virtual tour may also have some merit. A dizzying array of 360 degree views of particular rooms in the White House is also available. But when it comes to access to public yet private spaces, nothing is more disappointing than the virtual tour of the CIA.

In reality, many "virtual tours" prove to be just cross-sections or exploded cutaway views of the public space, such as the White house virtual tour, Some "virtual tours," like that of the Library of Congress, are just photo galleries of architectural details.

I personally would like to see a 360 virtual tour of the Great Hall of the Department of Justice, where the scantily clad Art Deco statues of the Spirit of Justice and the Majesty of Law have been recently uncovered after months of shrouding under former Attorney General Ashcroft.

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