notes on satellite geographies

October 7th, 2016. Filed under: writing.


In his 1961 dissertation, Map Transformations of Geographic Space, Waldo Tobler describes the 1944 maps of Richard Edes Harrison, which assumed a peculiar perspective. While the Soviets may have claimed they were “unscientific” (prefiguring later critiques of the political power of maps), Tobler calls it a “valid projection” that, by the time of his writing, had taken on an added significance as it “shows the earth as it might be seen from an orbiting satellite (48).


The geographic importance of satellites as both a tool (ie: remote sensing, satellite imagery, etc) and object of study (ie: mobile maps, military intelligence, surveillance, etc) is well known today in geography. But the geographic imaginary of seeing like a satellite and the desire to see these seeing machines has also been productive in geographic scholarship. For example, Doreen Massey, in her 1993 essay Power geometry and a progressive sense of place, begins with the view of an imagined satellite, one that lies beyond existing satellites, and is able to zoom in on a place. She writes:

what gives a place its specificity is not some long internalized history but the fact that it is constructed out of a particular constellation of relations, articulated together at a particular locus. If one moves in from the satellite toward the globe, holding all those networks of social relations and movements and communication in one’s head, then each place can be seen as a particular, unique point of that intersection (61).

This is a different view than that of the totalizing vision of the technologically-enhanced primate eye seeing through a satellite that Donna Haraway has critiqued:

Vision in this technological feast becomes unregulated gluttony; all seems not just mythically about the god trick of seeing everything from nowhere, but to have put the myth into ordinary practice. And like the god trick, this eye fucks the world to make techno-monsters (581).

Massey doesn’t use the imaginary of satellite vision to produce an all-knowing perspective (she may even be reiterating contemporaneous critiques of David Harvey’s totalizing views, see for example Boys Town by Rosalyn Deutsche), instead she zooms in to a particular place. But the zoomed-out satellite view is still important in seeing the vast global networks that intersect in each particular place, allowing her to call for a “global sense of the local” (68).

If the imagined satellite view is productive in Massey’s work, Trevor Paglen flips the script by attempting to photograph the visual traces of satellites that are ostensibly hidden from view. His The Other Night Sky photographs are produced through detailed research that enables us a technologically-mediated view of the watchers:

The Other Night Sky” is a project to track and photograph classified American satellites, space debris, and other obscure objects in Earth orbit. The project uses observational data produced by an international network of amateur satellite observers to calculate the position and timing of overhead transits which are photographed with telescopes and large-format cameras and other imaging devices.


Optical Reconnaissance Satellite Near Scorpio (USA 129)
C-Print 48 x 60 inches

But there are limits to vision, both in the imaginary of seeing like a satellite (Massey) and in visualizing the visualizers (Paglen). Louise Amoore, in her recent article on ‘the cloud’ writes:

Among the critical geographical accounts of cloud computing, the desire to wrest the cloud into an intelligible form similarly finds expression in methods of visualization. The geographer and artist Trevor Paglen seeks to ‘make the invisible visible’, reflecting that ‘the cloud is a metaphor that obfuscates and obscures’ the material geographies of the ‘surveillance state’ (Paglen, 2014). Paglen’s work is concerned with bringing the geopolitics of cloud computing back into a human line of sight through visualization. His methods deploy optical devices of many kinds to bring back into human vision that which would otherwise exceed the limits of observation. His ghostly images of the NSA’s data centres are photographs taken at night with a long-focus lens from a helicopter; and his photographs of the secret installations of military and drone bases in the Nevada desert are taken with adapted telescopic instruments of astronomy (Paglen, 2010).

The optical instruments deployed by Paglen belong to a paradigm of observation in which, as Peter Galison describes, one is offered ‘a direct view’ of things otherwise ‘subvisible’ (1997: 72). As Paglen accounts for his own work:

My intention is to expand the visual vocabulary we use to see the US intelligence community. Although the organizing logic of our nation’s surveillance apparatus is invisibility and secrecy, its operations occupy the physical world. Digital surveillance programs require concrete data centres; intelligence agencies are based in real buildings … if we look in the right places at the right times, we can begin to glimpse the vast intelligence infrastructure. (2014, my emphasis)

So, for Paglen the challenge is to ‘expand the visual vocabulary’ in order to see more clearly the geopolitical technologies of security, or rather to bring into vision the things which would otherwise be obfuscated by the cloud.

Ingrid Burrington’s Networks of New York, from:

But, as Amoore argues, this security apparatus of which satellites are a part, exceed our capacity to visualize them:

To be clear, the point is that the desire to ‘open the black box’ of cloud computing and to expand the visual vocabulary of the cloud, to envision the cloud and its properties in geographic space, dwells within and alongside the paradigm of observation. In Stephen Graham’s work on cities and warfare, for example, he writes of ‘systems of technological vision’ in which ‘computer code tracks and identifies’ (2011: 66). Such technologies of vision, it has been noted across political geography, operate increasingly along vertical dimensions, requiring new forms of critical observation and attentiveness (Graham, 2016). The emphasis in political geography has been placed overwhelmingly on bringing the abstract world into vision. There are, however, crucial aspects of these technologies which cannot be brought into human vision where, for example, algorithms are communicating with other algorithms at speeds beyond human observational capacity (MacKenzie, 2016).

These algorithms that exceed human observation have important implications for Massey’s view—how we can observe (or even imagine to observe) algorithmic flows that have increasingly become points of connections between places? Shannon Mattern writes about the proliferation of ‘field guides’ that aim to make the cloud legible, and asks, quoting Amoore, what if we view the cloud “not as a place but as analytic”? She observes:

And maybe these attempts to “wrest the Cloud” too often resort to artificial methods. Is pinpointing “where the data live” akin to shooting the bird, rendering it conveniently compliant, in lieu of a more contextual examination? Is Amoore correct, that the Cloud explorers who seek its manifestations in particular sites and screens fundamentally “misunderstand” the Cloud’s calculative forms, and the way it alters “the character of what or who can be sensed or perceived”? Recent guides to the Cloud-on-Earth seek to render coherent and intelligible an apparatus that’s built on “partial and indeterminate lines of sight” and patterns of organization. Perhaps we should think about the Cloud instead as “a bundle of techniques acting upon the threshold(s) of perceptibility,” resistant to field kits and guidebooks.

Mattern and Amoore raise important methodological questions, especially for geographers, as we grapple with understanding and representing networks that become visible in particular places, but whose calculative logics exceed observation.


I might also add that visualizations that imagine the view from above can have important implications for our surveillance imaginaries (as I’ve called them elsewhere). Consider, for example, this creepy GOP ad that popped up on my Twitter feed:


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