Here Be Dragons: Google Earth As Omniscient Atlas
When I was a child, I spent countless hours poring over a Cold War–era National Geographic photo atlas. I traced every road and river, in every country, some which no longer existed or were currently in the process of brutal disintegration (à la balkanization). Sometimes, when I was really lucky, a country would be represented by two or three photographs. Some countries earned no photographic representation. Nonetheless, these photographs helped me learn that Thai women had really long fingernails, Brazilian men wrestled anacondas naked, and Africa was an untamed land bereft civilization and modernity. This photo atlas provided a seven-year-old me with irrefutable evidence about my world, but it also left so many questions. Malawi and Kyrgyzstan had no photos; what were they like? As I grew older these questions became more nuanced: Are all Algerians really Tuaregs? Might South Americans actually wear clothes? Are Western Europe and the United States as idyllic and perfect as the amber waves of grain imply? As much of a colonial travesty as that book was, it sparked an intense interest in the world and provided me with enough information to later deconstruct its own narrative.
Jump forward a few decades. Croatia is firmly established as a tourist hotspot, Dubai is megalopolis, and Burma is now Myanmar. So much has changed. We also now have a qualitatively different kind of atlas: Google Earth. This new atlas—a seven-year-old technology that allows me access to every nook and cranny of the planet’s surface—ostensibly offers a potential antidote to the inaccuracies of older atlases. This computer software exposes the mysteries of the world; every single village, building, and street on the planet is immediately viewable to me, save those hidden beneath thick canopies.