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Invisible Earth

By Annalee Newitz

EVERYBODY says that Google Earth—a free, 3-D mapping program from Google—gives you access to the entire planet, that it shrinks the globe down to the size of your computer monitor until you know it as well as you know your desktop icons. Supposedly, it brings you closer to understanding not just geography but how global warming is eroding the coastline of Antarctica and melting the frozen bogs in Siberia.

Google Earth, according to its worshipers, isn't just a neat piece of mapping software that lets you zoom over satellite images as if you were in a fantastic flying dream. It's a new form of consciousness. It's globalism instantiated. It's what will finally tie us all together exactly the way the Internet failed to do.

But Google Earth is also supposedly so accurate that it's endangering our troops in Iraq. After all, the terrorists could use Google Earth to locate our bases and create strategically located roadside bombs. People see those magical-looking satellite images floating under them as if they're traveling across oceans in unreal time and imagine that they're getting some kind of live feed, constantly updated every nanosecond.

They forget that satellite photos to that level of detail cost a lot of money and take years to gather. They're not just traveling through space in Google Earth but through time. The smooth globe you see under your mouse pointer is a patchwork of images harvested over the past two years.

People can use the "keyhole communities" application to create their own comments all over Google Earth using markers and tags. Somebody created overlay map images in Baghdad, showing the bombed buildings as they look now. You can flick between the year-old images and the overlays, comparing the unmolested city with the current one. Somebody else planted a comment in downtown Minneapolis, where there appear to be literally acres of parking lots: "How many parking lots does a city need???" the tagger asks in a floating dialogue bubble that appears to hover several thousand feet over the empty cement spaces.

I like to see the floating bubbles attached to buildings and cities, to see the traces that people have left behind on the landscape. On Maui, there are comments in three or four languages, some of them written in character sets that my computer doesn't support. Next to the Kanji and Roman tags, there are ones that look like strange squiggles and lumps—perhaps Cyrillic?

I like to plug my next destination into the search box and watch the Earth swoop under my eyes as the map moves—Maui to New Delhi, where someone has helpfully noted the location of a spot to buy sugary treats called Sweets Corner. New Delhi is one of the only cities I can see up close in India.

I look for Chennai, Mumbai, Bangalore and Ahmedabad; Google Earth swoops in close, but all I get are dark blurs where the cities should be. There are no close-up views; these pictures give less detail than I'd get flying over in a plane. When I pull back for a focused, satellite's eye view, there's a vague impression of tiny roads and gray city centers. But it's nothing like the granularity I get when I float downward into the space hugged by the circular road that defines the borders of Moscow.

I also find no detailed cities when I skate over the entire continent of Africa. Nairobi is a swath of green with tiny flecks of light everywhere; these are the faintly visible roofs of buildings in a city of 1.3 million people. But the urban area is nearly obliterated by distance. It's a mystery.

It doesn't feel to me like Google Earth is making the spaces and relations of the world more obvious. I can see roads in Russia, but not Kenya. Hawaii is a snowstorm of information, but Gujarat is silent. Perhaps what Google Earth really shows us in stark relief is how many parts of the world are still invisible to people in the United States, where Google generates its Earth. From here, many parts of the globe are just blurs seen from high up and far away.

At least, Google Earth lets us see what we can't see, shows us the gaps in our vision. And yet, unlike other mapping programs, the tantalizing detail of Google Earth makes us yearn to see more. We want to fly over more gorgeous lakes, duck into the wrinkles of rocks and forest, volcanoes and valleys. We want to visit buildings in downtown Nairobi. But in the world of information—supposedly a place that defies geography—Google Earth is a reminder that where you live determines how much Earth will know about you.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd whose roof looks pretty clean from Google Earth.

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From the August 24-30, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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