Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Surveillance, Hierarchy and Democracy

When we think of big brother's surveillance, we usually imagine it from a specific point-of-view. It is a inspection from high-up. Architecture has long communicated a hierarchically important position by lifting it. Thrones, alters, and corner offices are all usually elevated so that the subjects can see their rulers. The reverse is also handy; to keep power, the rulers must gaze upon their subjects.

It is 2006, and that relationship is accelerated. Unlike Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon (The Inspection House - 1791), we gaze from a tele-presence that Mr. Bentham nary could have imagined. Today's utensils of the totalitarian society Bentham first sketched would include closed-circuit television, military satellites, and that crazy strong antenna array the NSA has in Sugar Grove, West Virginia. (Jacque Attali reminds us in Noise that it’s not just the ability to gaze that constitutes power, but also the ability to listen, record, and silence.)

A lot of the information the government used to monopolize twenty years ago has become available on the internet. Google Earth (and it’s browser-based sibling Google Maps), TerraServer, and even interfaces like HousingMaps are democratizing that rarified point of view. Heavy users are becoming very comfortable with seeing the world from above, adjusting their eyes to decipher the oblique axonometrics that satellites often return, and using the information to make more informed decisions.
Now we are seeing the first indications that our cities are conscious of being seen from above. They’re posing for touched up pictures. Posing, up.

Two new sites change that stereotyped thought. Microsoft’s “Birds Eye View” on Local Live offers disorientation to those who try to navigate with its interface, and most strikingly, Amazon’s A9 documents the city from the pedestrian’s point-of-view. Browsing our nations big cities by looking at all their buildings' bottom two floors provides just as incomplete a picture as browsing every tar roof, but it’s a start. Both are still just models of the city in browsable photograph form, but it will be exciting to see how advertisers subvert this new medium, and pose for such models too. (Whenever possible links on this post have been focused to present the building that houses both Richard Meier's and Charles Gwathmey's offices at 475 Tenth Avenue, in New York -- Hey guys!)


Blogger J said...

Today, Wired Magazine ran this article...,70138-0.html?tw=wn_index_5

... on the coverage of this website...

11:37 PM  

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