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Google Lighthouse: A Light So Dim
Rohit Gupta, 22 Mar 06


"Sail on!" it says: "sail on, ye stately ships! And with your floating bridge the ocean span; Be mine to guard this light from all eclipse. Be yours to bring man neared unto man.

- The Lighthouse, H.W. Longfellow

1: Camera Obscura

In her last column of 2005, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote that the Vice President has turned America into a camera obscura. She was speaking of Giambattista Della Porta's dark optical chamber where the outside world is seen through a pinhole or lens, and the images are always inverted. Cheney's attempt at censoring his residence's details from the Google Earth software (a tool which has raised the eyebrows of potentates in many countries, including India ) was the target of Dowd's vitriolic erudition. Here was a man trying to erase himself from a detailed geographical map of the world, too detailed perhaps.

Indeed, a man with a laptop connected to the internet via WiFi sits inside a four-walled house, his dark chamber. On his screen, his only window to the outside world, he is able to see the entire planet through a camera (an extension of his eye) mounted on a satellite, transmitting that picture to him via Google Earth. In what way is this picture of the world inverted? No camera, including the human eye, receives an upright picture of reality. This picture is always inverted by the camera obscura, the lens, the eye. Its sharpness is a function of focal length, the ability of our eyes to adjust between distance or time. The inverted picture is processed by the human mind, perceived and considered an original picture. There is no way of saying how, in this short interval, the image has changed. The only way one can be sure of what one sees is by having a second opinion, as in Islam – where you need two witnesses of the faith to confirm the dawn of a new moon.

Suppose that the screen of the laptop was wall-sized and mounted on a wall as a plasma screen or LCD. This would transform the outside of that wall into it's inside, and play images from all over the world onto this wall of the dark chamber. However, this transparent wall is also the virtual window! If the images are as seen from directly above his house, and the man views his own rooftop through the Google Earth software, the image will not be inverted, per se, but upside down. From the satellite on horizon level you could see a picture of reality rotated by 180 degrees. The zoom lens of the satellite camera can also capture images at different points on the horizon, declinations that show the man upright when the satellite is about to "set" and "rise" like the sun.

This strange virtual satellite floats and flies across the planet's landscape, but its motion is not as determinate as we may think. Since these declinations can be controlled by the viewer, the Google Earth "eye in the sky" can be said to swivel like the human eye, or a man watching a rotating globe encased in glass. Only, in this case – not only will the Google eye be able to swivel Space, with enough frequency of pictures, or video - it might be able to swivel Time.

2: Maps Without Borders

Each cartographer is involved in the creation of two maps:

1: One is the map that he creates of a gigantic area, shrunk and calibrated by scale into a much smaller area that can be studied by a standing man, or projected onto a wall or ceiling. He tries to construct the image of a large territory by summing up certain key information about that place. The cartographer acts as a camera obscura.

2. The second is the map that is created not by the pen, but by the feet of the cartographer as he goes about his job, moving around in his studio, living his life and leaving his imprint in everything he touches or walks upon. In this version of the map, human movement acts as the camera – projecting reality on the ground beneath our feet.

3. There is a third map, the map that explorers make with their feet as they carry this cartographer's map, following its contours and correcting them on the map as they pass. If a certain place is upon the map, there is a chance that it has been passed before by man, and therefore they retrace and correct the older footprints. The hands of the cartographer make the first map, and the movement of his feet tracked by a global positioning system (GPS) make the second map. When these two maps converge, the need to draw lines on the earth-grid would disappear.

A Google Map Hack can show the tracing of GPS signals moving around the globe, and each of these signals originating from a cell-phone. If each GPS signal's locus is graphed in a certain color that signifies the country that person belonged to, what would the shape of countries look like?

Consider the additional tool in Google Maps, where anyone with an internet connection can zoom from satellite level down to photographs at street level, and observe most of the civilized world. "And I'm the only one who finds this a little unnerving?" blogger Mathew Baldwin had commented on his popular blog Defective Yeti, with a mock satellite close up of himself working at a computer. In a few months, you will be able to type in the address and watch the most recent, high-resolution satellite photographs of the building, and fly to it like a virtual camera. You will be able to see people doing what they do - in offices, balconies and gardens.

You can already see the stray bomb exploding in a Baghdad street, the remote desert location of counterculture festival Burning Man, and the giant waves of the December tsunami closing in on Sri Lankan beaches. Highly detailed satellite maps of India are already at the disposal of intelligence agencies of most developed countries that have surveillance satellites in orbit. It is believed that more than 8000 artificial objects are currently in orbit around the earth, many of them taking pictures every few minutes. Besides, the cost of putting a payload or satellite in space is falling so fast that very soon, an individual with modest means will be able to put an eye in the sky for personal use. Already, Team Encounter is offering people to put small objects in orbit for as little as $50.

3: Conclusion

"Conquest of space would not have been possible without the products of perspectivisim--accurate maps and representations of the actual terrain, which allowed the observer to occupy an externalized perspective in which the globe could be viewed as a knowable totality." (Purser)

It is now confirmed by observation from the naked eye from the surface of the moon (assuming the lunar missions were not staged in Nevada) and outer space, that the earth is a visible sphere, a globe hanging in space. Nonetheless, there is a world of difference between the visible shape and the experience of a certain place. A country on a map, or as seen from a satellite photograph, provides little or no information about what life in that milieu is really composed of. To measure these characteristics, which are composed of human intensities and not numerical extensities, what tools do we have available?

What Google has built with it's services and focus on "search" is such a social milieu where intensities can be measured, in terms of what a research paper called the " Google Normalised Distance". People are now able to tell, in six degrees of separation, how far they are "socially" from their favorite celebrity, or desired business contact. The normalized distance is between two links which reference to these people. They are able to spy on each other via Google's Satellite Maps, see each other walking in the streets, sipping coffee.

Perhaps it would become difficult with increasing pollution in the air to see everything clearly in a satellite photograph; there might be a fog surrounding the Earth. The BBC reported on March 2 that "If trends in cheap air travel continue, says Professor Gerry Gilmore, the era of ground astronomy may come to an end much earlier than most had predicted." In such a world, if you wish to get closer to a certain person, you'd need Google Lighthouse. This application will study the network separating you and the person you wish to know in persona, or virtually.

It will show you how you can traverse the distance that separates man from woman, or as Longfellow prefers, "bring man neared unto man."

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Posted by: kiki nikolidaki on 23 Mar 06



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