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Map of the Week: Blobbed Britain

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Mark Easton | 14:18 UK time, Monday, 23 March 2009

Is it true that Mullah Omar, the publicity-shy head of the Taleban, has been snapped coming out of a DIY superstore in Sheffield with a tub of tile grout? If so, it would be the only verified photograph of the reclusive Afghan.

No, I made it up. But even if he had been captured on Google's new Street View maps, their technology means that his face would have been automatically blurred.

My Map of the Week this week provides a picture of British life in soft focus.

So assiduous is the tool that even the face in the Bobby Sands mural in Belfast has also been obscured.


The Manchester United star Cristiano Ronaldo is blurred on a poster at Old Trafford - a wonderful example of what can happen when anxieties over our "surveillance society" collide with our "celebrity culture".

This is a man whose image is among the most recognisable on the planet. But on Street View, he is just another blob.

We live in a society where many people believe that fame equals fortune equals fulfilment. It was this narrative that provided the backdrop to the public life and death of Jade Goody.

Whether it be the YouTube wannabes or the reality TV hopefuls, there is a never-ending supply of people prepared to parade their lack of talent and abundance of self-belief. If only enough people could see my face, they seem to suggest, then happiness and immortality will be mine.

I suspect that if word had got out, crowds of exhibitionists would have been on the pavements to greet Google's fleet of camera cars as they toured and snapped the UK.

There is a disturbing desperation in some of those prepared to expose their weaknesses and prejudices in return for publicity. Like those kids who delight in jumping up and down and waving at my camera when I am out filming, we see grown men and women proudly humiliate themselves on any media available.

Yet, in sharp (or should I say blurry) contrast, there are those who worry our society is suffering from exposure. They demand the right to hide away, to opt out of the digital chronicle being compiled by a million cameras.

Indeed, such is the anxiety and the sense that publicity is inherently dangerous, that we obscure scenes that anyone might witness looking out of a bus.

In recent years, it has become normal to portray the lives of young people in Britain with pictures of their footwear. BBC Television is not alone in concluding that it is often wise to disguise the identities of children walking home from school by focusing on their scuffed trainers.

When far-off historians come to study the early 21st century, they may speculate on Britain's curious foot fetish.

I do understand that there is a responsibility on publishers and broadcasters to protect the vulnerable, but is there not a middle ground between intrusive long-lens shots and routine anonymising?

At a conference on youth crime I attended last week, there was a debate as to whether young offenders being interviewed about how they had turned their lives around should be routinely "blobbed".

The argument in favour is that it is impossible to know how a young person's appearance might negatively affect their life chances. However, there are those who fear that never looking into the eyes of children who have misbehaved risks turning them into a faceless monsters.

Talking of which, does it not seem curious that the mother of our democracy has reportedly decided to blob herself?


Parts of the Palace of Westminster are unavailable on Google's Street View - one presumes for "security" reasons, even though any would-be Guy Fawkes can join the thousands of tourists snapping away.

banksy226.jpgUpdate 1433: Three more blurred Google faces have been sent to me.

The first is a bit of Banksy graffiti in east London [see image on right].

The other two [see below] are further examples of the publicity/privacy clash.

If you find any more, do post them here - leave a comment or a link in the comments box below.


Update 1532: Another example, a grotesque in Cambridge, is highlighted by the New Scientist.



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