Panorama to Globarama

The panoramic gaze is no longer part of the same space as the perceived objects. It sees the objects, landscapes etc. through the apparatus with which it moves through the world." -- Wolfgang Schivelbush

Every breadth you take (breath analyzer)
Every move you make (motion detector)
Every bond you break (polygraph)
Every step you take (electronic monitoring)

I'll be watching you.....

(Gary Marx on The Talking Heads)

In 1995 the Central Intelligence Agency, under executive order, began releasing images from its secret, now declassified, databases of cold-war satellite reconissance flights. Admiral William O. Studeman, then acting director of the CIA, took the opportunity to muse about the project Corona's objectives and the future of space-based imaging: "As we debate the role and mission of intelligence in the next century, it is important to understand how the images sent back by these early satellites altered our view of the world during the Cold War and how satellite imagery continues to shape our worldview today." With particular interest, he cited the use of satellite imagery during the Gulf War and highlighted the example of Hussein's attempt to dump oil into the gulf and the effectiveness of the imagery in containing a potentially catastrophic ecological disaster. It is of no small interest that Studeman's strategic use of "the role and mission of intelligence" is so directly linked with imagery, especially as the metaphor of an omni-present source of "intelligence" comes to dominate the discourses of cultural studies, economics, sociology, art, entertainment, and politics.

Indeed a new blitz of television advertisements (following the AT&T campaign that proclaimed "You will" to a series of speculative questions like "Have you ever faxed someone from the beach?") is extending the concepts of ubiquity, communication, or community in pathetic McLuhanesque-cum-Chardinesque-cum-Minskyesque societies of mind. MCI's new campaign is littered with little pronouncements like "there is no race, there is no gender, there are no infirmities," and ends with, "there are only minds." "Utopia?" comes a voice from tvland, "No, the internet." 'Only minds' is a phrase whose links with the deeply problematic notions of "collective intelligence" that are more suited for the neo-Jungians and new age post-everything ideologies that it important to pause and consider the effects of collapsing identity and political structures in the not-so virtual, not-so-cyberized world in which most of us still inhabit. Yet the "second flood" (the title of a report to the Council of Europe written by Pierre Levy) suggests the new totality, an "open ended universality" (as Levy states it) in which cyberspace "exemplifies the simultaneous, horizontal, purely spatial form of transmission." It is, Levy concludes his report: "with its teeming, swarming communities, the budding, branching intergrowth of its works, as if every memory of all mankind had expanded in a single instant, in a vast act of simultaneous collective intelligence, converging towards the present in a silent flash of light, neurones as the comets to burn forever bright." Sorely quixotic and absurd, this sort of deification can hardly find a rationale EVEN in the most zealous ad campaign, no less a report on the state of cyberspace. But the global mind, the open-ended totality, the society of mind, the cyborg body, the noosphere are linked by illusions whose 'utopias' are a cross between conjecture and desire. Was it Albert Camus who once remarked that there is a fine line between sanctity and idiocy?

This line is way too easily crossed in the tele-spectacles and phantasms of these last few years of the millennium. A front page report in the NY Times (January 27, 1997) written by John Markoff writes about MEMS (micro-electro-mechanical systems). These devices could be seeded into the environment. The article speculates:

Whatever the technical obstacles, the new frontier of MEMS could also bring with it thorny social problems. For example, a 1995 study group in the United States, sponsored by the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the Pentagon, proposed the idea of 'surveillance dust.' Each dust particle would consist of tiny sensors with a miniature parachute, microphone and infrared detector. Sprinkled over a battlefield, this dust would float for five hours or more to give pinpoint information on enemy locations. Privacy experts, however, worry that such technology could soon be widely deployed for civilian as well as military applications.

But while the technophiles assemble a wholly digital future founded on press releases and supposition, more interesting problems than panoptic dust collect in an infosphere (should one say atmosphere) of uncontestable presence. William Bogart calls it an environment of in which we are "ever more willing to sacrifice ourselves to simulation in order to push surveillance to its absolute limit." and in which there is "no question of a return to some private realm.", while Gary Marx finds an "osmosislike transfer of legitimacy...The aura of science, with its suggestion of modernity, power, efficiency, and certainty, is often drawn upon with terms such as 'sophisticated technology,' 'high tech,' 'the scientific measure of truth,' ultraminiaturized,' solid-state electronics,' 'integrated circuitry,' 'voice stress computer,' 'electronic analysis.'". But this overwhelmingly impenetratable system is neither invisible or lost behind the veil of artificially rendered representations. Nor is it lost in the vague reading of the network as imperceptible yet ubiquitous as Christine Boyer suggests in a definition of cyberspace as "a new electronic, invisible space that allows the computer or television to substitute for urban space and urban experience. " Rather, the network (on a broad scale) has yielded some significant representations of the ubiquitous and distinctly unsimulated visible world.

The images emerging from the CIA's Corona Project, from the Galileo Project, from countless web sites of earth from space like earth unveiled, demonstrate that the database is brimming not just with microelectronics, agents, or autonomous powers, but with revealing and important examples of a visible realm whose circulatory system is not a technology itself, but a set of ideologies whose compulsion to master is linked with the compulsion to record.

And while the world wide web offers this cross between a database, archive, and warehouse, the network itself offers access to datastreams not lost in the hopeless click and wait metaphor of the hypertextual web, but in broader bandwidth activity that can operate in nearly real time. Most conspicuous in this regard is the work of Art+Com in Berlin. Their work, T-Vision draws on planetary databases whose store of representable material, from topological and meteorological data, to statistical and photographic information, is mapped within a rendering engine that layers data logically in real-time. As Derrick de Kerkhove writes:

As you "fly" over Tokyo or Berlin, you can call up real time satellite data about the city's weather conditions, or connect with one of its TV or radio channels and listen to its news, or go to its stock exchange board, etc. What you see, if you choose to "land" is an analogue image, in 3-D, of the streets of the city. If you want to enter one of its virtually constructed buildings, you can fly into it. You can even enter in a virtual office, sit at a virtual computer and perform real data processing, if you so desire, taking advantage of the specific performance capabilities of the real computer represented by that simulation in that virtual office. If, perchance, you would like to see what is happening, at that very moment, in the real street outside the virtual office, and if there is a videoconferencing set-up connected to that office with a camera looking out from one of its simulated windows, just look out.

Beam me down, Scotty
It is possible to imagine that, like Virtual Tourist, but in a much more sophisticated way, we could address ourselves anywhere on the globe and land there in a live contact. Thus you can travel in time or space via recorded or simulated data. T-Vision accomplishes the exact opposite of what Startrek technology purports to do: instead of dematerializing the traveller, it dematerializes the whole world.

But rather than specifically "dematerializing" the world, T-VIsion instead demonstrates that a dynamic implementation of technology can represent transition, stability, retrieval, anticipation, and mobility as both behavior and instrument. Clearly, the technology driving T-Vision is of interest to the scientific and surveillance communities as a powerful interface. As a visualization system, it is stunning. Yet it also suggests the limitations of even dynamic databases as archives of much than increasingly complex flows of information. Its images are unsentimentally instrumental (unlike the NASA images representing the 'whole earth') and fundamentally static. Surely this will change, but for the moment, T-Vision's panoptic instrumentality is limited despite its paradoxical importance. As much a signifier of observation as one of immersion, T-Vision challenges the passivity models that haunt the world wide web in presenting a dynamic interface for shifting datastreams. And while the vision of a mapped planet, omnipresent and retrievable is no replacement for the discourse concerning regional identity, the logistical use of the database, or the ubiquitous assumptions and fallacies of the global village or its discontents, T-Vision does not fall into silly simulations or dreamy revery. Instead, T-Vision straddles the line between memory and information and reminds us of that the transparent "intelligence" of the image dominates and fascinates. As Christine Boyer writes in Cybercities:

In terms of the imageability of our contemporary cities, there appears to be a double process of remembering and forgetting at work, an agreeeive emphasis on conventional 'zones' where images are cast from archives and databanks alongside a refusal to address forgotten, in-between spaces from which reason, capital, services, and visual focus have been withdrawn.
Slavoj Zizek is quick to remind us that "virtualization is paid for by derealization." The sharp rise in robotic cameras accessible through web, nearly instantaneous feeds of information from and during events throughout the world are catalysts to reflect on the accelerating trajectory of technology but stand as well for considering the effects of new media as intrinsically linked with instrumental notions of progress. T-Vision, the CIA's Corona project, Minsky's Mentolopis, Chardin's noosphere, Kelly's Neo-biological civilization, or McLuhan's Global Village are intricately bound together by technologies whose cunning deployment pose deep questions for a culture reeling in infomania and paranoia.

©Timothy Druckrey