The View from Nowhere

Review of

Close Up at a Distance: Mapping, Technology & Politics

New York, NY: Zone Books, 2013, 232 pp.

Laura Kurgan, Close Up at a DistanceThe global positioning system (GPS) technology incorporated into the vehicles, computers, smart phones, and other devices we use every day provides a convenience that would have been almost unimaginable two decades ago. The guesswork of map reading, the frisson of coming across something unexpected, the anxiety of being lost: for people embracing the perpetual orientation offered by GPS, these are concerns of the past. But what do you lose when placing yourself within a digital landscape, handing control and information over to the devices and organizations that govern this space? How does your relationship with the real, actual world change when it becomes a collection of indicators for orienting yourself within a virtual landscape, rather than vice versa? To what extent do these mapping technologies represent the interests and politics of their origins in warfare, surveillance, and military intelligence? What ideologies do they conceal beneath a veneer of certainty and precision?

These questions animate Laura Kurgan’s work in Close Up at a Distance. In exploring the ways these technologies alter our experience of the world and the consequences of using them—often unthinkingly—to navigate our environment, Kurgan makes use of mapping technologies in a series of nine projects. Ranging across such diverse subjects as war crimes in the Balkans and spatially concentrated zones of incarceration in Brooklyn, the projects seek to discover the politics embedded in the use of these technologies and to, according to Kurgan, “use these new technologies for good ends, rather than the militaristic ones for which they were invented.” The unexplored assumptions behind this blunt dichotomy hint at some of the weaknesses in this attractively assembled, often fascinating, ultimately frustrating collection of work.

Ways of seeing

Many of the technologies that are woven deeply into the fabric of modern society were initially developed to project and enhance military power. Global positioning and remote sensing satellites, and the software algorithms that makes sense of their data, are no exception.

The Department of Defense’s GPS program, known as NAVISTAR, began in 1973 and was operational in time to direct missile strikes and troop movements during the first Gulf War in 1991. Today the system, a network of two-dozen satellites and five ground stations, is operated and maintained by the U.S. government as a “free worldwide utility.” It is capable of pinpointing a device’s position to within 5 meters, and when augmented by other sources (the iPhone, for instance, makes use of nearby cell phone towers or WiFi networks) GPS can be accurate down to less than a meter. It enables a person to know precisely where a smartphone, vehicle, missile, or drone is located on the earth’s surface.

That information, however, would be difficult to understand without a map. Remote-sensing satellites, which take pictures of the earth’s surface from orbit, have greatly facilitated the ease and accuracy of modern cartography. In the 1960s, the Central Intelligence Agency’s Corona program inaugurated the use of reconnaissance satellites for intelligence purposes, and was quickly coopted for mapping missions. Like many clandestine Cold War initiatives, Corona bordered on cartoonish in its complexity: exposed film was dropped from orbit in a “bucket” with parachutes, meant to be caught in midair over the Pacific Ocean by a passing airplane. A salt plug would dissolve and sink the bucket within a couple of days, should the plane miss and Navy ships not find the film bobbing on the surface.

The satellite image is a representation, mediated by what we know and what we believe, and like all representations of reality, it is relentlessly political.

From this outlandish origin, remote sensing has followed a trajectory similar to that of other technologies—from a purely military and intelligence technology (spy satellites), to a resource supported by public funds (Landsat), to a commercial venture (QuickBird and GeoEye, for example). After 1992, the U.S. government allowed private companies to operate remote-sensing satellites and sell very high-resolution images. GeoEye’s second-largest customer for its images is Google (the largest is the U.S. government). This is a profound change in the creation and use of maps. Representations of territory have been a way for states, from the earliest city-states to contemporary nations, to lay claim to, or at least make legible, the space being charted. Private entities like Apple and Google now decide what, how, and to whom cartographic information is presented. While noting this, Kurgan does not explore the transformations entailed in this commercialization of remote-sensing technologies.

The latest generations of GPS and sensing satellites transmit data digitally. (No more film buckets dropped from orbit, unfortunately.) These data require interpretation, so geographic information services (GIS) software is necessary for interpreting and displaying spatial information in a useful way. Connecting data to geographic location can be enormously useful in determining, for instance, a user’s position on a map, troop movements in a foreign country, or the buying habits of a targeted demographic. One of the first examples of utilizing spatial data was British physician John Snow’s famous 1854 map of a deadly cholera outbreak in London, which inaugurated both the science of epidemiology and the use of social and geographic data to visualize what would otherwise be impossible to perceive.

Kurgan undertakes a similar task in her “Million-Dollar Blocks” project, which layers criminal justice data onto neighborhood maps to find city blocks on which the state has spent more than a million dollars incarcerating its inhabitants. What her maps show is the state’s investment in destitute areas of the city—not for development purposes but to lock up the people who live there. This is a brilliant appropriation of the GIS systems that police departments use to track crimes (such as CompStat in New York City), systems that enable the allocation of resources on incidents of crime while ignoring the underlying factors of concentrated poverty and isolation that contribute to these incidents.

Politics of representation

As the “Million-Dollar Blocks” project illustrates, Kurgan’s intent with the investigations collected in Close Up at a Distance is to repurpose mapping technologies for ends that belie their origins in state surveillance and military applications. She claims that “the history and politics of these technologies are at once obscure and important for understanding what’s at stake in working with them,” and goes further to argue: “For every image, we should be able to inquire about its technology, its location data, its ownership, its legibility, and its source.”

This agenda seems unfocused. A satellite image’s metadata may be of esoteric interest to the specialist, but to the average person this information is analogous to knowing the model of camera used to create a magazine photo or the network architecture of an email program. It is unclear what moral or political clarity that information can offer. Furthermore, can the militaristic ideology that originated a technology inhere in the technology itself? As mapping systems become increasing incorporated in nonmilitary public and commercial spheres with their own sets of political commitments, it appears that the use rather than the origin of these technologies sets the political stakes.

Of greater concern then, and where Kurgan’s investigations are most valuable, are the ideological ends that these technologies’ outputs are marshaled to support. The fact that the maps, images, and spatial data produced by mapping technologies are often presented as objective and irrefutable makes a critical appreciation of these technologies essential. “The facts speak for themselves,” according to Colin Powell’s infamous formulation, made while he argued the case for war using satellite images of Iraq’s purported weapons factories before the U.N. Security Council. But the “facts” of satellite images most certainly do not speak for themselves.

Images are never merely an objective, “mechanical record” of the world. Painting, for example, which until the early twentieth century was nearly always representational, is a highly subjective medium, and obviously so. The subject matter, composition, and style are chosen by the artist, and represent his or her interpretation of the world. This is equally true of photographs, although their subjectivity becomes more difficult to discern because, as Susan Sontag noted, photographs “do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it.” Untouched by human hands, the veracity of images encoded to a magnetic disk in the guts of an orbiting satellite seems absolute. But their very distance from human affairs—what makes them seem objective—means that satellite images require analysis and interpretation to make them intelligible. The view close up at a distance, carefully selected and analyzed, is a screen on which a particular version of the world can be projected. The satellite image is a representation, mediated by what we know and what we believe, and like all representations of reality, it is relentlessly political.

Kurgan fully recognizes this, and offers critical appraisals of images produced for what she calls “militaristic ends.” But her assessment lacks the same clarity when presenting her own images, the “good ends” of the dichotomous moral framework she has set up. Her unexamined assertions are most clearly on view in the “Monochrome Landscapes” project. These photographs from QuickBird and Ikonos satellites are of four landscapes characterized by the colors white, blue, green, and yellow: the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, the Atlantic Ocean off the west coast of Africa, old-growth rain forest in Cameroon, and the Southern Desert in Iraq.

The resolution of these satellite images is such that one can see, for example, logging roads cut into the Cameroonian forest. Kurgan notes that the forest “has a simple aesthetic—a detailed and undulating green forest, seen from above, whose beauty is interrupted by a road that looks almost natural, simply a part of the landscape. But it is new, not natural, and demands that a viewer ask questions about it.” It is clear from Kurgan’s phrasing that this image is intended to prompt an awareness of the way the human presence diminishes—has “interrupted”—the beauty of the natural world. But hers is by no means a self-evident conclusion: the fact of that road does not speak for itself, and the idea that a road is “not natural” is normative and subjective. The verdant forest canopy may indeed be beautiful from above, but the people at ground level making use of the forest’s resources via that road cannot share in Kurgan’s aesthetic perspective.

The temptation to omit competing responses to these kinds of images may be, in part, a function of the vantage that remote-sensing technologies enables. As anyone who has ever tried to guess at the purpose of structures seen from an airplane window knows, the view from above is disorienting. It requires interpretation, and when this is not acknowledged—when images are presented as objective, unpolluted by human interests because produced by a machine in orbit—the unseen interpreter has imposed his or her own view of reality on another’s. It thus offers political opportunities. The environmentalist Stewart Brand, for instance, called for an image of Earth from space to be made public in order that viewers would recognize the photograph as “visual proof of our unity and specialness, as our luminous blue ball-of-a-home contrasted dramatically with the dead black emptiness of space,” according to Brand’s colleague Robert Horvitz.

Is this utopian vision of our fragile blue planet—a view that by necessity omits the human, the political, the contested—really so distinct from the militarized perspective of a landscape as a place to be monitored and controlled? Both use technology to depopulate the visible space for other, higher purposes, and in removing people from the frame they become totalizing visions, “visual proof ” of the rightness of a particular worldview. To quote Vilém Flusser, the Czech-born philosopher and writer, humans have made these images to orient themselves in the world, but because “they are no longer able to decode them, their lives become a function of their own images.” The view close up from a distance demands a more rigorous critique in order to avoid simply privileging one ideology over another. Kurgan offers only a partial, albeit often compelling, decoding of these images.

Cite this Article

Lloyd, Jason. “The View from Nowhere.” Issues in Science and Technology 30, no. 3 (Spring 2014).

Vol. XXX, No. 3, Spring 2014