The view from above

February 27, 2018

The view from above

Julia Rijssenbeek
February 27, 2018

The view from above

Julia Rijssenbeek
February 27, 2018
The view from above
Julia Rijssenbeek
Maya Turolla
February 27, 2018
Photo courtesy of Lance Asper. © Unsplash

Historically, the view from above was a privileged point of view. First, it was only accessible to gods and birds, then this view was granted to humans through cartography. Today, we are equipped with more accessible and better ways to observe the earth from above. New questions arise about these powerful tools that grant a godly perspective.

Our observations

  • Machine learning and automated monitoring have enhanced satellite systems. The Sentinel-2B satellite, launched this year, marks a step forward in Earth observation technology and scans every part of the earth every 5 days.
  • The satellite market has developed rapidly and grown from a handful of government satellite programs to many commercial, smaller, and cheaper satellites with many applications. As the satellite industry becomes more accessible, it gathers more detailed data from above.
  • In 2015, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) took a step forward and enabled a broad range of commercial applications for drones by allowing them in multiple industries, such as insurance, construction, and agriculture. More inexpensive toy drones are becoming increasingly popular for recreational use. The drone industry pushes for regulation that further enables growth and innovation.
  • For investigative journalism, spatial information, such as data from satellite imaginary, is an accurate source, e.g. PATTRN is an open-source app for data visualization and Forensic Architecture that uses spatial information to investigate human rights controversies.

Connecting the dots

Maps give us a perspective from above. The spatial information depicted by maps is performative in the sense that it not only records but also constitutes space; it invites all sorts of actors to exert power over this redefined space and, consequently, politicizes space. Powerful groups can integrate intentional errors and omissions in maps in order to maintain the privilege of a view from above. For example, before the Global Positioning System (GPS) was publicly accessible, it was a tool of the U.S. military for decades. The military deliberately included an error of a few meters in the location readings of any commercial GPS unit. Similarly, military bases are often blurred or patched on Google Earth.The perspective from above also holds a subversive and liberating dimension. The first pictures taken of the Earth from space, fueled people’s awareness of the vulnerability of the blue planet and provided momentum for the environmental movement. Existing power structures are challenged by an increasing public view from above. Satellite imagery becomes more accessible and allows us to track changes in real-time; for instance, we can track the islands built by the Chinese in the South Chinese Sea. Furthermore, earth observation data offers insights into today's biggest global issues. Journalists have access to information they cannot obtain in any other way. In the hands of NGOs and activists, satellite data is used to register incidents and for counter-mapping. Counter-mapping refers to the efforts to map "against dominant power structures". A case of accidental counter-mapping happened in 2014, when a European satellite passed over Gaza and took a high-resolution picture of an explosion. This gave a rare insight into otherwise unavailable evidence because previously, the U.S.-Israeli government masked all satellite images of the area by using a low-resolution veil, but the European satellites did not have such restrictions.In the future, we can expect more unmanned aerial objects that grant us the bird's-eye view and that allow us to master the perspective that was previously only fully accessible to the powerful. However, even if the view from above is more accessible to the public, it is still limited by regulations. Drones, as relatively new aerial objects, are disclosing spatial information to a bigger public, and this begs for new regulations. Moreover, the view from above is still colored by the way we interpret data and imaginary. For example, as political philosopher Huub Dijstelbloem reminds us, monitoring migration goes beyond tracking movement with images. It requires protocols to gather, interpret, compare, and apply information. As the Google earth example above demonstrates, monitoring technology can be viewed as a panoptic for all, but with a selective vision.

Implications

  • Commercial drone industry, cameras, and lenses, data/AI tools for analyzing/interpreting footage.
  • Journalism using earth observation imagery.
About the author
At FreedomLab, Julia Rijssenbeek focuses on our relationship to nature, sustainable and technological transitions in the food system, and the geopolitics of our global food sytems. She is currently working on her PhD in philosophy of technology at Wageningen University, investigating how synthetic biology might alter philosophical ideas about nature and the values we hold, as well as what a bio-based future may bring.
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