Airbrushing history

“Airbrushing history” is an interesting concept, particularly when applied to satellite imaging. I know it’s foolish to suggest that satellite photography makes claims toward authenticity and thruthfulness that regular old SLR photography can’t, but how often do we think about the man behind the satellite camera? Usually only when areas of the map are “blacked out,” censored by some political agenda.

How long will it be before there are hundreds of commercial competitors to Google Maps, all with their own ideologies and manipulations of history. A map that returns Europe to a glacier. One that shows every point on Earth during its most violent. Maybe a low budget map made of images stitched together from photos taken during cloudy weather, nothing but shades of grey.

Of course the giant, high resolution satellite map is a fiction. It’s never really even existed - it’s stored in pieces, only displayed in parts, and made by tiny satellites cutting razor’s edges over the Earth’s surface that add up over time to some simulation of a flattened map. It all reminds me of a story I heard about the very first “satellite photos” which were taken with regular old SLR cameras pointed out of the window of those rickety old 1960’s spaceships.

Google, the ubiquitous internet search business, has been asked by a US congressional committee why it was “airbrushing history” by replacing post-Hurricane Katrina satellite imagery on its map portal with images of the region as it existed before the storm destroyed neighbourhoods, uprooted trees and smashed bridges.

“Google’s use of old imagery appears to be doing the victims of Hurricane Katrina a great injustice,” wrote Brad Miller, who chairs a US House committee, to Google chief executive Eric Schmidt.

The virtual trip through pre-storm New Orleans is a surreal experience of scrolling across a landscape of packed parking lots and marinas full of boats. The reality is very different: entire neighbourhoods are now slab mosaics where houses once stood and shopping malls, churches and marinas are empty of life, or gone entirely.

So far, it’s unclear why the images were changed. Chikai Ohazama, who runs Google Earth, said governments often ask Google - whose corporate motto is “do no evil” - to change its imagery, but New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin says it had no hand in the matter.

From Google Wipes Katrina off the Map

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