The View from (Google) Earth


More and more we are accustomed to seeing the world from space.
No one I have ever known has actually been to space (though I once did chat with John Glenn at a New Year’s party) but we now consider this view from above as natural as any terrestrial one. We even consider it a natural right to be provided this once rarified view at no charge. Even our iPhones have a native satellite view at eye popping resolution. Resolution so amazing that while I could see someone swimming in my pool (were they there at that moment), I actually can see the chaises on the terrace and the car in my driveway (all available for rent this summer!). This resolution, limited by the Federal Government to 20”, is astonishingly captured from more than 1,000 miles above the earth. That is equivalent to taking a photograph of your grandmother in Boca from your window in New York. And we are still barely impressed.

Our office now designs projects that rely on that diety-like perspective. It started as an fascination with the “plan”, a typical obsession of architects, and progressed until Google Earth achieved ‘satellite ubiquity’. Now everyone is literate in the birds eye view and it is now possible to ‘speak’ to the planet via Google Earth. Target is actually directing ads and logos to the everypresent sky-eyes; if we extrapolate this tendency we will have signage regulations for roofs before long.

Combine Google Earth with Street View and you have the best way to visit nearly any man-made place in the civilized world. We all visit more places virtually than physically and, rather than travel guides or travel novels, we prefer the screen. This is both incredible in its immediacy and frightenly uncurated and completely unauthoritative. We are able to see virtually anything, but understand virtually nothing.

On screen the eerily beautiful transitions from outer space to your own house (Eames ‘Power of Ten’, eat your heart out!) and from plan to oblique to modeled oblique to street view panorama are becoming part of our visual vocabulary. The mirror balls (or are they fisheye lenses?) that once facilitated the transitions from plan to elevation were the portals to another world. A world of unmoving context through which we move effortlessly. Frozen reality: The Fermata, The Matrix and Eadweard Muybridge are now worlds we effortless inhabit.

There is even a timescale on Google Earth that allows us to move backward and forward in time, completing the time/space continuum. We are, of course, all waiting for the ‘real time’ views we see in movies like Syriana and the Gulf War bombing-porn. And it will happen right about the time we are all driving electric cars; soon but not soon enough. When we have real time Street View our total surveillance state will have finally arrived, and it will be one in which we both perform and observe.

Like many projections of the future, Minority Report figures in our view of technology; like transparent touch activated computers (touch yes, transparent and flexible very soon); personalized advertising that follows the target (yes, if you consider online ads powered by your search and email contents); pre-emptive crime prevention (well, there was the war in Iraq…).

Designing for Google Earth is like acknowledging the camera. The camera changed the world it photographed. Its view forever changed the way we see the world and the way the world sees us. I would tell you to get used to it, but we already have.