Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The map vs. the territory

The location of the Sistine Chapel, next to Saint Peter's
Revelations that the NSA spied on the conclave that elected Pope Francis. According to the report by weekly magazine Panorama, the information collected was categorised under four general topics: ‘Leadership intentions’, ‘Threats to financial system’, ‘Foreign policy objectives’, ‘Human rights’. All of them are intriguing. What’s even more intriguing, is that the spies of the great power would want to go there, inside that building, where 109 old men from what was once a great power deliberated on who should lead them for the next few months or years.

Back when it was a great power, the Church used to have its own network of spies. In 1593, they renditioned Giordano Bruno to Rome, where he was to stand trial for believing that the universe worked in a certain way. When he refused to say different, they burned him alive, after clamping his tongue to make sure that he couldn’t address the crowd.

Campo de' Fiori, Rome
For a time, Giordano Bruno had enjoyed the protection of the English court. He also lived in France, Switzerland. Germany. There was no other continent for him to be back then. The world was smaller. So he moved to Venice, in the hope that he would be safe there. He wasn’t.

Moscow's Domodovo Airport
Edward Snowden’s world is larger, but it’s also more densely patrolled. When they thought he had boarded a plane headed for Bolivia, they forced the plane to land. They denied him use of the sky. Except he wasn’t even on the plane. Snowden is a heretic, as is Julian Assange. Intelligence gathering is the expression of the modern will to knowledge and information. The closest thing we have to a secular religion.

If the National Security Agency really intended to spy on the conclave – and there is some doubt that they actually did, as we have but a single report to go by – then it would be an expression not just of extreme paranoia, but also of that will to knowledge; a desire to listen in to every conversation, even the ones involving archaic organisations and conducted in low-tech fashion according to pre-Information Age protocols. If we could get into that room, without being cardinals or relying on gossip, then there would truly be no place barred to us. That’s reason enough.


Much is constantly written about those mapping tools that have successfully embedded themselves into everyday life, more so now that we have smart phones and touch screens. Most of us are familiar with Google Earth, yet for me personally the smoothness of its operation is still a source of amazement. How you can zoom in onto the map or the aerial picture until it becomes blurred and grainy, only for the image to switch to the first-person, immersive Street View. From then on the operation becomes slow and clumsy, but bloody hell. It seems forever since we could do this, yet it is one of those innovations that changes the way you understand the world around you.

As a couple of comedians have remarked: what do we do, when we first come across one of these tools? We ‘visit’ our house. Then our childhood neighbourhoods. But there is no gag here: it is the perfectly normal, reasonable, human thing to do. To view the places you know best from a new vantage point. To model, manipulate and remake that intimate geography.

I go on these tours often, armed with sentimentalism and the migrant experience. I do it also to reassure myself that I still know my way around. Or to check if any of the images have been updated. Early on, with Google Earth, entire chunks of Lombardy, especially down towards Mum’s old village, were blanketed with fog. Gradually they were replaced with pictures taken on clear days, leading to a neat patchworks of large rectangles, some 30 kilometres or more across, a clear one sitting next to another of uniform milky white. Or there would be a tract of countryside in summer next to one still stuck in autumn or winter. (This still happens.) Then sometimes you would zoom in and at the next level of detail, the image would be clear, as if you’d broken through clouds.

These days, it’s always sunny on Google Earth.

Checking if the images have been updated during the initial roll-out served another purpose: to see if a familiar place was now shown at a higher resolution. The other world got gradually clearer.


Yesterday I tried Bing’s 3D Maps for the first time. Bing’s world is still very patchy, with large areas at a low resolution, and a very limited availability of the Street View feature (which Microsoft has dubbed ‘Streetside’. Bless them.) But the maps aren’t altogether inferior to Google Earth’s. The 3D view is in fact remarkably good. It hit me, again, that feeling of seeing for the first time the places with which I’m most intimately, almost pre-consciously familiar. There’s the house in which I was born.

There’s my old school.

They appear to me, in perfect relief, almost hyperreal. If I rotate an image, this will modify the perspective and return a different image taken at a different time of the day, or the year.

Clearly, this goes well beyond functional representation. It’s that will to total knowledge, again. The desire to be everywhere at once, as is the internet, which is fundamentally a will to control. Yet I spend hours looking at the images, feeling that a different place and time are within my grasp. Nothing is more vivid than these electronic ghosts.


Unknown said...

There be demons...
wv, our jury (hmmmmmm).

mistah charley, ph.d. said...

with regard to the 'irrelevant old guys' view of the Church of Rome - i'd like to point out that today is Guy Fawkes day, marking the thwarting of a terrorist plot intended to put a Catholic back on the British throne - whether or not the Vatican directly instigated the Gunpowder Plot (according to Wikipedia, the Chief Jesuit in England "knew of" the plot but could not reveal it to the authorities because of the absolute confidentiality of the confessional)

2)even in modern times the power of the Bishop of Rome is consequential in sociopolitical affairs - the most recently deceased pope was the target of an assassination attempt, you may recall

Giovanni Tiso said...

I don't believe I used the word 'irrelevant'. Did I?