Strange Inspirations: Opentopia

In my last post about writing, I discussed how I get inspired through music. I forgot to note that most of the music that I listed were posted on YouTube, SoundCloud, and 8tracks. Honestly, I wouldn’t have written most of my recent fiction if it weren’t for odd indie music I’ve found online.

The Internet is a huge influence on my work. It is both a second world and a gateway to parts of the real world that I may never actually see in my lifetime. I am a traveler at heart but not by trade: I have never left my home country, and I’ve only visited a few different states. While I plan to change this in the near future, I simply do not have the money to travel. In the meantime, I enjoy some of the amazing tours on Google Maps, as well as a more unusual site, Opentopia.

I encountered Opentopia for the first time a couple years ago. My first reaction was to ask myself, “Is this legal?” There answers are multiple answers to this question, which include “yes” and “it depends.” As their About page explains, they utilize a “variety of clever search techniques to find new cameras.” All webcams on the site are unsecured; this typically means that they have no password or a factory-default password. Many of the streams are from public places that willingly share their webcams with the world. These range from zoo-cams to beautiful views of the ocean. Several are considered “semi-public” – for example, businesses or a resorts. These streams straddle the legality line. Public and private university campuses both have a surprising (or troubling, depending on how you look at it) amount of unsecured live streams, mainly covering quads and cafeterias.

The creepiest streams on Opentopia are unsecured cams in a private home. Most of the time, the inhabitants are completely unaware that people are watching them. This has horrific implications, especially for homes that may have a security camera in their child’s room. I avoid these streams like the plague, with one exception – an infamous case in which the home’s inhabitant wants people to watch her: Chip-chan, a South Korean woman discovered by 4chan years ago. The mystery and online history that surround her are intriguing, but it has also reached the point that a great amount of people (sometimes including me) check out her webcam just to make sure that she’s okay.

How does Opentopia inspire me? The same way that documentaries and Google Maps Treks do: by giving me an intimate view of parts of the world that I’ve never seen! It doesn’t totally compare to actually visiting those places – I cannot experiences the smells, tastes, and sounds – but there’s a special feeling about seeing a different place in real time.

It also serves as a bizarre but accurate reference for settings. For example, if I need to, I can find a South Korean live fish market, the US-Mexico border, a bar in Spain, or a village in Norway. I’ve been inspired by the Monkey Walk at Kanbanotaki Natural Park and the Neumayer Station in Antarctica. Privacy in a digital world is an interesting challenge to tackle; this, along with web-infamous streams like Chip-chan, offer excellent real-world inspirations for sci-fi (and arguably reality-based) fiction.

If you feel weird about watching something (or someone!) in real time on the other end of the world, maybe Google’s interactive treks would be a better choice, like this tour of Venice. It may be strange, but I believe that nearly any resource can be valuable for a writer.

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