Monday, November 26, 2012

Satellite Imaginations

Parks raises a number of good points (and a number of points that I found troublesome or even naive) in "Digging into Google Earth", but the issue of the satellite image (and the use of satellite imaging in a political setting) seems most salient, and most deserving of a response.

Parks had significant problems with Google's "Crisis in Darfur" layer for the Google Earth software (without, of course, condemning it with blanket statements) that confused me initially - up until the section on temporality it was actually difficult for me to understand what significant problems one could have with a project that, while not presenting all possible information (the call for a history of the Scramble for Africa embedded within Google Earth struck me as a bit of a stretch, akin to asking for a detailed history of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire to understand the Iraq War), was still attempting to to present some information.

But it seems misleading at best and damaging at worst to position the Crisis in Darfur layer as allowing the global community to intervene when the images of burned villages and refugee camps, by their very nature as static, uploaded images, requires it to be too late to intervene - at least in those particular instances, the captured memories of which are meant to drive viewers to action - especially when taken in conjunction with other issues brought up by the concept of "slacktivism". Telling users that they are intervening, or positioning themselves to intervene, while using a piece of software produced by a multinational corporation seems patently false (obviously no intervention is occurring when one sits at one's computer and sifts through static images). Tapping into that desire to "do something" while also conveniently allowing an audience to do, effectively, nothing is tempting, but it is also very problematic.

Unfortunately it seems difficult to understand how to move around this fundamental problem. All Eyes on Darfur is positioned as a more helpful alternative, but this is somewhat missing the point - even though Google's status as a corporation means it stands to "profit from disaster", it also occupies a relatively sacrosanct position in the Western imagination; Google's initiatives simply reach a broader audience than Amnesty International's do.

Besides, even Parks recognizes that there are difficulties involved with the use of satellite imaging in general. All Eyes on Darfur is considered as a potentially more useful tool than Google Earth's Crisis in Darfur layer simply because it offers a new way of looking at conflicts - but the questions that Parks hopes might be asked by this different presentation are not required to be asked while looking at All Eyes on Darfur, and the idea of focusing attention on a particular part of Africa known contemporaneously for its violence was criticized earlier in Parks' piece, too (specifically, the issue raised was with headlines like "Google Earth Turns Spotlight on Darfur) - if one is willing to take issue with names like those, one could argue that All Eyes on Darfur connotes images of theatricality and performance that are equally troubling.

Parks raises some good questions about the proper way to use modern technology to understand conflict - our way of interacting with news and media has changed fundamentally, and those new constellations do offer an opportunity to reimagine the ways we conceive of humanitarian crises and disasters around the world. But these questions do not have easy answers, and the few that Parks provides seem too threadbare to be of much use. One thing is for certain: a simple piece of software or a new website will not be able to, singlehandedly, transform decades of tropes and ideals that have formed around conflicts in Africa, or disasters across the world. On this, Parks and I can agree.

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