Time Zones

By: Matthew Battles
October 3, 2010

One of the most noteworthy elements of Google’s geographical tools is their propensity for capturing not space, but time. By happenstance or design, Google’s world-crawling streetview camera famously witnesses crimes, disasters, phenomenal islands of temporality in a sea of geographical documentation.

But when I spend time in Google Earth, I’m entranced not by the easter-egg serendipity of such moments, but by the stratigraphy of moments piling up out of time. In using Google Earth, we treat these atemporal mappings as noise; I prefer to think of them as the signal. Take this view of the shore of China’s Qinghai Lake, a temporal tapestry where seasons and solar effects meet without mixing — bands of summer cloud and shadow sliced by crepuscular snows:

Of course, this effect is merely an artifact of orbital expediency. Google Earth ceaselessly weaving and mending, stitching together its image of the globe out of imagery gleaned from numerous satellites, its algorithms searching for new data to darn holes. The resulting frontiers of atemporality alienate place and time, capturing locales in frozen streams of history — like this snowbound settlement near the Lake Qinghai shore, stranded in sight of lapping waves and warm waters —

— frozen forever — or at least until the next update.

These temporal borders are uncanny reminders of ineluctable time. We want our networks to flatten time, but peaks and valleys are unavoidable. There is no mastering point of view from which the entire globe may be imaged in a single scan.

Like all good tapestries, Google’s temporal tissue tells stories. In Morocco, a field’s circular irrigation patterns reveal the seriality of blooming and browning:

Borges famously demonstrated the uselessness of a map at the scale of one to one; in the fragmentary short story “On Exactitude in Science,” he imagines its users becoming just as lost in the map as they were in the world. “In the western deserts,” he tells us, “tattered fragments of the map are still to be found, sheltering an occasional beast or beggar.” In Google Earth, however, such maps pile up, one atop the other, palimpsests with their own ineluctable stories to tell.

Categories

Spectacles, Uncanny

What do you think?

  1. Lovely writing and wonderful images. I am working on Google Earth myself,
    best
    Catherine

  2. Nice compiliation Matthew. Thanks for sharing!

    In our educational Google Earth project “Oude Landschappen”, about realistic old Dutch landscape paintings, we try to make visible even larger time intervals than Google Earth’s aerial imagery shows.

    From an educational perspective showing what’s NOT there (anymore) can be just as interesting as showing what’s (still) there. Luckily Google Earth as we know is the perfect tool for augmenting reality with extra information.
    As a matter of fact mobile internet users, who’s numbers are on the rise, even have no use at all of photos of the ‘status quo’ (in their current location). That’s precisely why we are so pleased with our own Wikitude layer.
    http://www.aotp.nl/educatief/oudland/html/oudland.htm

    Best regards,
    Dieter

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