A critique of satellites, critiqued

It’s fun to come up with a thesis and then squeeze the facts to make them fit. it might even be fun to listen to. But is it any use beyond polemics as entertainment? We Make Money Not Art‘s Régine Debatty covers a talk by Lisa Parks from the Film and Media Studies at UC Santa Barbara about the social impact that satellites have had, including how they have affected our perceptions of conflicts. She frames her questions thus:

How have satellite images been used to represent global conflicts in the public sphere? Where does the authority to use and interpret satellite images come from? What kinds of phenomena and events do satellite images represent? Have satellite images increased public awareness and knowledge about global conflict? How have practice and meaning of “intervention” changed in the digital age?

There is a lot of potential there. Parks looks at the historical use of satellite imagery to influence public opinion, in Rwanda, Bosnia and in the run-up to the last Gulf War. Google Earth makes an appearance, and so does the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Crisis in Darfur layer, but this is where I think she draws flat-out wrong inferences. Do read the whole thing, but I’ll quote part of Parks’s thesis (as dictated by Régine) and then comment.

Since 2005, Google Earth presents us with a “mosaic’ed” version of the world using satellite images coming from various sources. But while the logo of Google is always clearly visible on the images, no matter how blurry they are themselves, we are kept in the dark regarding the satellites used to compose these images. Google Earth is a great opportunity to educate the public about satellites but instead GE tends to almost erase the existence of the satellites.

No information about satellite imagery in Google Earth? Actually, read the very next paragraph:

DigitalGlobe provides date information for satellite images that are part of Google Earth using color-coded squares and “I” icons. By clicking on “preview,” you enter a meta-browser featuring the single satellite image captioned with information about how to purchase it or others from DigitalGlobe. DigitalGlobe is thus providing date information as part of a marketing strategy. GE becomes a billboard.

So, in fact, you do get satellite imagery metadata after all, but now it’s called marketing? (Meanwhile, Spot Image has similar information available.) I agree that there is not enough metadata about the imagery in Google Earth, especially the aerial imagery, but surely what is there is sufficient for basic forensic neogeography, and it is much better than nothing.

Google Earth teamed up with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to create the Crisis in Darfur mapping initiative which collects and diffuses visual evidence of the destruction in Darfur.

On the surface it looks like an admirable project but in several ways it missed the opportunity to represent the conflict in all its complexities. It uses tropes to represent African tragedy (images of suffering children carried by their mother). There is no visible effort of providing a political and economical education about the tragedy.

I was (marginally) involved in helping to make that layer a reality. Tropes? I saw some of the imagery that didn’t make it in — plenty of corpses bloated in the heat and charred skeletal remains. But Google Earth is used by children, and so what you see is necessarily a PG version of the humanitarian crisis. As for not making an effort to provide a political and economic education — that’s not what was lacking. What was lacking was a geographic education, and this layer has done a good job of driving home the scope of the crisis using the best free canvas available.

With the slide i pasted below, Lisa Park claims to demonstrate that earlier media news provided more opportunities for education:


Image by Régine Debatty

My comments: DigitalGlobe and Spot Image do both date their imagery. Spot Image dates it to the nearest second. And the major omission by Parks, in my view, is not mentioning that post-Google Earth we are much less at the mercy of governments feeding us their own interpretations and unique views. Back in 2003, we were not able to counter Colin Powell’s presentation to the UN regarding the existence of WMDs in Iraq. These days, we can make our own investigations about similar claims in Syria.

Problems of GE Crisis in Darfur layer:
– obscure satellite imagery,

??? The high-resolution imagery is mostly DigitalGlobe imagery, with dates provided. There is always credit given for all the imagery visible in a Google Earth view, at the bottom of the screen.

– represents the “past perfect”, because it show what we monitored from space but didn’t do anything about at the time,

How does this argue against the layer? It argues for it and Google Earth having existed sooner, so it might have spurred public support for intervention sooner.

– involves the branding of global conflicts (no matter how blurry the image, the Google brand is always conspicuous),

Right, shoot the messenger. Analogous claim: Microsoft brands the Holocaust because you can visit websites about it using your computer while the Internet Explorer logo is showing in the browser and the Windows logo on the Start menu.

– exemplifies neoliberalism (David Harvey) and disaster capitalism (Naomi Klein),

I can only speculate as to what she means here: Does she mean to say that these images are more prone to make us intervene, and by doing so we would import a western capitalist reconstruction industry that would breed dependence on aid and western loans? And that it would thus be better not to show satellite imagery of burned villages, as otherwise the danger is that we’d move to prevent massacres, thus making things worse by involving capitalism? At this point, I quickly double-checked the talk was not given on April 1.

– from CNN effect to Google Earth effect? In order to get world attention will an event have to appear on Google Earth?

Would that be so bad? Google Earth is a browser, not a channel; and it is a canvas onto which anyone can publish their own unmoderated geospatial content for others to view. It’s remarkable how Parks completely misses the real revolution that is Google Earth: Zero-cost low-effort content generation and publishing (and even hosting) for all users via KML, accessible to hundreds of millions of viewers and billions of web clients via Google Maps.

What does it mean for a US corporation to reproduce foreign territory as they want and without asking permission (some nations actually complained that GE causes a serious security concern.)

What is so special about the nationality of a corporation? Spot Image is French. The Russians also sell imagery. Is commercial remote imaging by a US company somehow more ominous? On the contrary, until Google Earth, such imagery was largely the domain of big-country governments, their militaries and proxies, without opportunities for citizens to check and balance the games played by the big boys. Today, we have volunteer-generated layers of all the world’s surface-to-air missile sites, and ones pinpointing North Korean prison camps. Is the fact that the widespread availability such information was facilitated by US companies operating in a capitalist environment so repugnant to Parks that she prefers to side with the opaque autocracies of the world, who see transparency as a threat to their authority? Google Earth levels the playing field in favor of the little guy, of every nationality. It makes the world a more democratic place, and yes, we largely have an American-owned initiative to thank.

In a nutshell:

The public remains relatively uninformed about satellites, their uses and their impact on everyday life even though citizens taxes subsidize satellite developments.

If anything, the phenomenal success of Google Earth has finally brought discussion about remote surveillance somewhat into the mainstream. For the first time ever, last year, the launch of a new DigitalGlobe satellite became a mainstream news item, largely because its imagery is eventually destined for Google Earth.

And re taxes: I don’t know if DigitalGlobe gets tax subsidies, but Google certainly pays taxes; and it was Google’s decision to start buying and making freely available all this satellite imagery over the past few years that spurred this present revolution — not anything DigitalGlobe did (other than to agree to sell to Google on such a massive scale).

PS: Just noticed that the site of the Israeli bombing raid in Syria just became hi-res with this latest update, dated April 1 2008. Imagery is from August 18, 2007, courtesy of DigitalGlobe’s metadata layer — just a few weeks before the raid took place. Detail is much higher than anything we’ve seen until now. The new imagery is not yet available in Google Maps, but from there you can click through to Google Earth.

3 thoughts on “A critique of satellites, critiqued”

  1. Stefan:

    Thanks for the grad school flashbacks!

    It’s a heady polysyllabic brew of Foucauldian Panopticism + Frankfurt School capitalism/Consumerism critique in the noble cause of …tenure?

    My favorite aspect of these deep critiques is that no one bothers to sketch out a scenario that wouldn’t be morally compromised in their eyes.

    On second thought, it would undoubtedly be something mysteriously similar to GeoPortail….


  2. Maybe she thinks “neo” necessarily implies something sinister. Neoliberal, neocon, neonazi, neokeynesian… neogeo?

  3. This woman is really confused. If she’s concerned about satellites, there is a bunch of them still taking secret photos and gathering many other secret data. She talks about “capitalism” and is worry about GE?…which is an incredibly democratic tool.. =)

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