On Technology: The View from Above

A recent post at the NASA blog Earth Observatory poses a version of the age-old conundrum: “If a landslide occurs in a remote mountain range,” it asks, “and nobody sees or hears it, does it matter?” The post discusses the work of researchers who are using seismic sensing to detect landslides in the backcountry, confirming their results with satellite imagery. The narrow answer to the conundrum, of course, is yes; large-scale slides in wilderness river valleys can trigger devastating floods downstream. Using remote-sensing systems developed to detect earthquakes, the researchers are building a system fine-tuned enough to capture the landslides’ subtler signatures. The confirming images, captured by NASA’s Landsat 8 satellite, are stunning, and more than a little bit uncanny: without human witnesses at hand, vast tracts of slumbering landscape suddenly crack and crumble—and 22 million tons of anonymous landscape along an anonymous tributary of Alaska’s Nabesna Glacier are reduced to a dun-colored debris field.

But it’s worth noting the twist given here to the metaphysics of the classic “tree falls in a forest” puzzler. The old version, of course, tritely questions the very existence of unseen things. But as sensor networks infiltrate far-flung regions, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to imagine an event happening beyond the pale of witness. All phenomena are reducible to data: our own acts, the migration of animals, the energies of plants, and the mechanical movements of the physical earth—the gusting wind, the river at flood, the ocean’s restless gyre. A new conundrum emerges: if something happens and it isn’t observed, measured, and recorded, is it a thing at all? And yet the landslide as event, the very moment of shuddering transformation, eluded capture in its intimate enormity. We’re left with two bird’s-eye snapshots—before, after—separated by an unbridgeable gap.

The French writer Michel de Certeau identified the dangerous glamor of the view from above, the desire to be “an Icarus flying above these waters,” who “can ignore the devices of Daedalus in mobile and endless labyrinths far below.” Daedalus, who built the labyrinth for King Minos, was a mythical maker of clever and exquisite gadgets (daidala in ancient Greek), including the wax-and-feather wings with which he and his son, Icarus, escaped their servitude to the Cretan king. Intoxicated by flight and seeking a higher view, Icarus flew too near the sun, melting his wings and falling to Earth. In his book The Practice of Everyday Life, Certeau contrasts the “scopic view” sought by Icarus to that of the walkers below, who wander spaces hidden from the bird’s eye, their “bodies follow(ing) the thicks and thins of an urban ‘text’ they write without being able to read it.” The viewer from above seeks comprehension; the walker down below is on the hunt for privacy, release, and the discovery of new “surreptitious creativities.”

In Certeau’s “devices of Daedalus,” perhaps, we catch a glimpse of the ambitions expressed by our own devices—our iPhones and Four Square accounts, Wikipedia pages and Twitter feeds—in their hectic mash-up of the telescopic and the technical, the strategic and the tactical, the comprehensive and the intimate. His formula catches also the strange paradox of these impulses, the Daedalan and the Icaran: Icarus’s vantage point, after all, is predicated on a folly, while Daedalus’s joyous engineering is given over to the service of narrow interests and immediate needs.

Certeau was writing about experiences of urban space, but his insights apply to the backcountry as well. To call it the “backcountry,” after all, is already to acknowledge an element of design in the artificial partitioning of country and city, wild and civilized. Such organization of space implies a bird’s-eye view already long at work. And indeed our “wilds” are ever more purposively designed and administered, tactical movements of animal and plant populations subsumed within the strategic ambitions of resource management: apex predators reintroduced, wetlands reclaimed, rivers restored. And necessarily so.

Can we tease an ethics out of this restless dialectic of Daedalan and Icaran? Do our technological forms of life, with their manifest and increasing impact on global systems, begin to mandate a kind of comprehensive and watchful stewardship of life forms as well? Is there a balance point, a sustainable pose, where Daedalan devices can help us to manage the damage we wreak; or will our “surreptitious creativities”—which are steered by those narrow interests and immediate needs to which our devices are in thrall—continue tipping inexorably and invisibly into disaster?

There’s no doubt that devices can help us to hear nature’s voices, to gaze down on labyrinths of ice and rock and know them as actors in the world. A salient example is found in the photographer James Balog’s use of remote cameras to visualize glacial retreat worldwide, documented thrillingly in the film Chasing Ice. NASA’s landslide research can be seen as work in the same vein. We’re wiring up the world like a patient etherized upon a table. For most of us, meanwhile, our devices serve tactical operations, wiring our private comings and goings into networks serving short-term interests. Tweets and check-ins are subsumed within systems less sustainable than glaciers or ocean currents. Any balance between the Daedalan and the Icaran is fragile and evanescent.

Only sometimes, the sublime does sneak through. On a recent overnight flight home from South America, I looked out the window and caught sight of a silver ribbon slicing through the inkiness below: the clear trace of a river catching the light of the waxing moon. The ribbon ran north, paralleling our flight path—but the in-flight navigation app on the seat-back screen before me wasn’t detailed enough to give the river’s name. And then the ribbon met perpendicularly with a vast glimmering braid: moonlight trickling northward across a great enjambment of interwoven channels slung like a great hammock east and west. Even at thirty thousand feet, these rivers were enormous; it took some minutes for our flight to escape the angle of reflection, the moonlight on the waters below rolling into blackness like a film’s final credits.

Hours later we landed, and given permission to turn on electronic devices, I thumbed over to the Google Earth app on my mobile phone to seek confirmation of what I’d seen. The stitched-together satellite images nicely matched my memory of the midnight view from above: evidently, we had followed the course of the Tapajós River to its confluence with the Amazon at Santarém in Brazil’s Pará state. From however great a height, I had indeed seen the river. But I also saw what the night had obscured: the cracked mosaic of fields carved from jungle, the ciliated growth of development reaching out from the roadways. It was a check-in of sublime proportions, made possible by this Daedalan device that had helped me to detect an event in my life only recoverable in retrospect, aligning my private wanderings with the Icaran impotence of the view from above. Delivering a bundle of data, it placed a burden upon me as well.

Matthew Battles is the author of Library: An Unquiet History and The Sovereignties of Invention, a collection of short stories. He’s a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society; follow him on Twitter at @MatthewBattles.


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