Icarus Over Manvers Lake


We took vertiginous pleasures in our flight above the waters of Manvers Lake, remote sensing, searching for the past, present and future. But we flew our remote control Icarus too close to the always intense Google sun, his beautiful white feathers fell from his wings and his skin, scorched, became ashen grey. Our simulated angel transfigured into the terrifying sight of the reaper.

[This text critiques Google satellite view from the perspective of its representation of the Manvers area of South Yorkshire, UK]

Google’s Satellite View, of all the representations presented by the Google Maps’ suite, is perhaps the most overtly innocent and the most overly threatening. The Satellite view of Manvers provides a very detailed overview of the area. Its land use is visible, ploughed fields, wastelands, new construction sites, flooded wetlands along the river Dearne and the outlines of the surrounding villages. Zooming in, fine detail can be observed. On Manvers lake ducks are swimming together in formation and an artificial crop circle is visible at the end of a tonsil shaped jetty of grass, traces of some of the former mine buildings reveal themselves scorched into the earth, goods stacked on pallets expose the enormity of the next depot, cars cluster together forming ordered patterns and small relics of Denman Road’s former housing estate can be tracked down in the coarse scrubland. Where the cartography of Google Maps may be questioned, Satellite view presents detailed photographic evidence. Elongated shadows of shoppers pushing trollies in Tesco’s car park testify to the detailed accuracy of the Satellite’s rendering. Google Maps’ perceived impartiality is essential to the continued reading of Google Maps’ neutrality and the addition of satellite images symbolises this impartiality by furnishing it with the quality of cold scientific evidence. A photograph taken from above a terrain has a different reading to cartographic representation of the same terrain.

People have become attuned to the constructed image; they know the camera lies, the airbrushed images of models on billboards and the covers of magazines have taught this lesson. Digital photography is everywhere, embedded into every smartphone and the techniques of manipulation are common knowledge, but the technological nature of the satellite image provides some distance between the very human tricks of manipulation and the evidence presented by the Satellite’s technological aerial photography. The further the image production is removed from the human hand the more it signifies objectivity and the lens of a satellite mounted cameras orbiting the earth at an altitude of 617 km [1] signifies that these images reveal a fundamental truth. ‘Satellite images like any mechanically produced image, bare the legacy of positivist narrative that assumes that scientifically produced imagery provides the most unobstructed and bias-free window on the “real world”’. (Harris, 2006) Satellite images are rich in topological detail and provide supporting evidence of Google Maps’ accuracy and scientific neutrality. Their perspective rises above the subjective to reveal objective knowledge. Satellite photography symbolises the truth, it claims not to lie in the same way cartography must lie.

Looking down on Manvers’ roundabout, with its striking spiral landscaped verge, the image is layered, a satellite photograph overlaid with cartographic detail. Satellite View presents a mixed representation of the landscape from above. The satellite imagery is enhanced with cartographic details maintaining a stylistic continuity with Map view. As you switch from Map view to Satellite view the graphic representation of the roads and the street names remain in place. Map View’s graphical representation of the road is transformed into a translucent grey rout suspended above the tarmac of the Satellite’s photographic image, hovering at a height just above the treetops, cars, partially obscured are visible frozen below it. The textual street names remain in place, but as you move from Map view to Satellite view, the black Arial font is treated with a textual effect, the font is changed from black to white taking on a black outer glow that allows it to levitate above the photographic road and hang suspended on the raised grey graphic platform. Zooming out, other cartographic information hovers over the satellite’s image. Google’s blue square icons, representing bus stops, become visible at regular intervals along Manvers Way and Station Road. The constellation of Manvers’s key landmarks, Tesco, Subway, KFC, Coster Coffee etc, continues to be highlighted, glowing above the greens and greys of the satellite’s photographic landscape. The affect of areal photography is to reinforce the Google Maps neutrality, the mechanical distance of the satellite areal view signifies factual information and this reinforces the neutrality of Googles cartographic choices. It obscures the bias inherent in the emphasis given to multinational business within the Manvers’ landscape.

Zooming out further, the detail disappears; each magnification as it decreases reveals different levels of detail, different formations and patterns in the landscape emerge as others retreat, each level contains its own form and its own content, small details become generalisations, individual cars disappear as roads become an interconnected system, minor roads vanish as motorways form networks cutting through a patchwork of greens, yellows and browns, Cities and their interconnections become readable, Rotherham, Barnsley, Doncaster, Sheffield, Leads, but where are the clouds? A cloudless sky over the whole of South Yorkshire is a freak weather occurrence. Decreasing the magnification further reveals the outline of the British Isles set against a deep blue sea, a detailed outline of the seabed, peaks and troughs form a complex submerged terrain, an inconceivable natural phenomenon rendered legible alongside a strong white graphic border demarking Northern Ireland from the rest of Ireland; The naturalism of satellite view’s seabed terrain reinforcing the ‘naturalism’ of a deeply contested political boundary. Zooming out beyond this reveals Satellite View’s representation of the whole earth, rendered using a variation of the familiar and heavy criticised Mercator projection. Machiraju (2014) has noted that, ‘the Mercator projection is a poor choice for maps of the globe in its entirety or for large landmasses on digital displays. The higher latitudes suffer from undue distortion and convey a false sense of proximity to the user, while the polar latitudes are completely missing…’. The projection has also been the subject of ideological criticism. In Monmonier’s (2004) account of the controversies surrounding the Mercator projection he points out, that the, ‘…rhetorical prowess, rooted at least as much in the map’s symbols and generalisations as in its projection, makes the map vulnerable to diverse ideological interpretations. Thus the Mercator map can be viewed as an icon for Western imperialism…’. I do not want to venture into the arguments around the Mercator projection here [2]. Its relevance to the Manvers’ drift is that it raises some questions to the actual honesty of Satellite view, as does the eerie lack of cloud coverage, not just over south Yorkshire, but over the whole of UK and Ireland, in fact there is no cloud coverage over the entire planet. Zooming back from 2000 km above Manvers Roundabout the copyright information at the bottom right of the map tells its own story. From 2000 km to a height of 1km the images are copyrighted by TerraMetrics. The TerraMetrics website boasts, ‘the first cloud-free global Earth image based on actual land cover colouring’ [3]. In effect these images are not satellite images at all, they are a, ‘visual portrayal of our planet’. i.e a graphical representation of the land mass using naturalised colours and utilising a distorted and ideologically suspect projection. Below 1km the images are copyrighted by DigitalGlobe. DigitalGlobe supplies Google with actual satellite images, but the lack of clouds within DigitalGlobe’s satellite images suggests that these images are composite images constructed to eradicate the visually disruptive effects of cloud coverage. Rather than examples of spontaneous aerial photography representing scientific indifference these satellite images have been subjected to a high level of digital manipulation. They are constructed composite views of the earth. Below 10m the images of Manvers roundabout are copyrighted Infoterra Ltd and Bluesky. Infoterra Ltd and Bluesky is a company that supplies aerial photography of the UK and Ireland. What this Copyright narrative reveals is that Satellite view is not actually the view of the ground from satellites orbiting the earth as its name suggests. It is a complex constructed montage that seamlessly integrates images from a variety of sources, aerial photography, satellite imagery and graphical representations, into a highly manipulated and at higher altitudes distorted representation of the earth.

The accusation of imperialism levelled against the Mercator map has also been sited as a fundamental aspect of the power/knowledge structure of aerial and Satellite imagery generally. In, ‘The Omniscient Eye: Satellite Imagery,

‘Battlespace Awareness’, and the Structures of the Imperial Gaze’, Harris (2006) writes that, ‘‘… satellite imagery, photo recognisance and image interpretation … produces objectivity, a techno-discursive distance between the observer and the observed, and a particular kind of modern surveillance subject. This subjectivity is structured by an omniscient, imperial gaze, a particular kind of subjectivity that signifies dominance over what is being observed.” While Harris is discussing Google Earth, these arguments can easily be applied to Google Satellite View. In fact the two packages, as I will discuss in more depth later, use the exact same image database. Harris’ critique of satellite images states that, ‘‘the perspective is one of a totalizing, objectifying transcendent gaze, and allows one to transcend the subjective world; what Donna Haraway calls the ‘‘God Trick” (Haraway, 1988), or what Denis Cosgrove has called the ‘‘Apollonian Eye” (Cosgrove, 2001). This has been an essential ideological component of global control and conquest since antiquity. Its power as knowledge is derived from its position above and beyond subjectivity, and as Cosgrove asserts, it is ‘‘implicitly Imperial”. (Harris, 2006) If we accept Harris’ articulation of Cosgrove’s critique of Satellite images being ‘‘implicitly Imperial”, how would this be applied to Google’s Satellite View? Imperial implies empire; it implies a colonised people and a colonial power. But how does this relate to Google as a multinational corporation rather than a traditional nation state?

The origin and growth of modern mapping can be directly linked to the development of the early modern state. Maps were not founded in some primal instinct “to communicate a sense of place, some sense of here in relation to there”, but the need of nascent states to take on forms and organise their many interests (Wood, 2010). According to Denis Wood, Maps as we know them only really date back 500-600 years and that there was a mass expansion in the production of maps from the year 1500 onwards. He links this expansion directly to the rise of the early modern state and its role in the service of these states, either through their use for administering property interests and defining territories or as direct tools of military conquest. Fundamentally the key power of maps was their ability to define and give shape to the state itself, to perform the shape of statehood. That is to legitimise and naturalise the rule of the state both to those outside the territory but also those inside the territory. Harley (2001) makes the case that these early states used maps as weapons of imperialism, ‘Insofar as maps were used in colonial promotion, and land claims on paper before they were effectively occupied, maps anticipated empire’. If mapping is directly related to nation states and if satellite imaging is implicitly imperial, then what are we to make of Google Maps? A map produced by a global corporation, providing detailed mapping technologies, free of charge, to the peoples of any state or nation who can access a smart phone, tablet on computer. Should Google Maps be seen as a break in the interconnection between mapping and state power? A Promethean gift of the technological tools of state power? Or as a new form of power, the Stato imperalisto della multinazionale as dreamt by the Italian Red Brigades, in which global corporations are challenging the role and legitimacy of nation states? Tracing further the copyright information, displayed on the bottom left of every Satellite View image used in the Manvers’ digital drift, produced greater insight into the origin of Satellite view and the relation ship between Google and the American state.

The relationship between Google Maps and the American state is a complex one and both can be seen as a disruption of the traditional role of mapping as integral to state power whilst renewing it through other more diverse means and it is the inclusion of satellite images that most closely ties Google Maps to the American state. The origin of Google Maps satellite view can be located in Google’s 2004 take over of Keyhole Corp. Keyhole Corp was a technology start up cofounded by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) funded venture-capitalist firm In-Q-Tel [4]. It was named after the first series of American spy satellites to use electro-optical digital imaging, code name ‘Keyhole’ (Harris, 2006). Keyhole’s technology at the time of Google’s take over combined, a multi-terabyte database of mapping information and images collected from satellites and airplanes, with easy-to-use software [5] and was a key supplier of Governmental contracts. Keyhole technology was developed by Google before being rolled out as Google Earth and combined with their own web-based mapping system to produce Google Maps. Google Maps uses the same satellite information as Google Earth, so many of the discussions about Google Earth’s satellite images are relevant to Google Maps’ Satellite view. Google has continued to work closely with the NGA and its partners in the procurement and advancement of its satellite images for Google Earth and Google Maps. Google partnered with the NGA in 2008 to help launch the satellite GeoEye-1 and the only difference between the GeoEye-1 images used for Google Maps and those used by the US military was the level of resolution of the images. In 2010 the relationship between Google and the NGA became even more tightly interwoven when the NGA awarded Google a 27$ million Sole Source (i.e. there were no other competitors) contract to supply ‘Geospatial Visualisation Services’ [6][6]. The justification for the contract is highly revealing about the level of investment the NGA had already put into Google Earth.

‘This acquisition is for Commercial Geospatial Visualization Services for NGA. NGA has made a significant investment in Google Earth technology through the GEOINT Visualization Services (GVS) Program on SECRET and TOP SECRET government networks and throughout the world in support of the National System for Geospatial (NSG) Expeditionary Architecture (NEA). This effort augments the current NSG architecture by expanding the GVS and NEA investments to the unclassified network in support of Department of Defense (DoD) Geospatial Visualization Enterprise Services (GV-ES) standardization. The NSG, DoD, and Intelligence Community have made additional investments to support client and application deployment and testing that use the existing Google Earth services provided by NGA. Google is the only identified source that can meet the Government’s requirement for compatible capability across networks, global access, unlimited processing and software licenses, and access to the Google Earth hosted content through widely-used Open Geospatial Consortium service interfaces’ [7].

Google is justified as the sole source for the $27 million contract to supply Geospatial Visualization Services to the NGA on the grounds that the NGA and the Intelligence Community have already massively invested in Google Earth and a requirement of the services being procured is its compatibility with Google Earth.

DigitalGlobe, who supplied the satellite images of Manvers roundabout is an American corporation that merged with GeoEye in 2013. Its primary business is the sale of high-resolution satellite imagery and data to both commercial and Government interests. During June 2014 DigitalGlobe received permission, from the US Department of Commerce, to sell commercial imagery at the best available resolutions, something that had previously been restricted to military and intelligence agencies. DigitalGlobe is supported by the NGA’s NextView programme designed to encourage commercial interests in satellite imaging. As the NGA themselves put it, “Commercial Imagery enables – Cooperation with federal, state, and local authorities in support of Homeland Security” [8]. What is apparent is that there is no clear separation between the US state, via the NGA, and Google Earth and it is unlikely that Google Maps satellite view would exist at all without the aid, support and investment provided by the NGA and the reciprocal supply of Commercial Geospatial Visualization Services to the NGA.

The connections between Google Maps and the US state, its intelligence agencies and military could be explored further, however it is important to establish that Google Maps, whilst providing a world view and a symbol of globalisation, remains situated within a national and state framework. It has strong connections to US homeland security, the US military, and the US intelligence community. Google Maps, and satellite view in particular, can be seen as playing an active role in surveillance. Harley (1988), already noted that maps can be seen as a ‘Technology of Power’ and some of the practical implications of maps may also fall into the category of what Foucault has defined as acts of ‘surveillance’ (Foucault, 1995 [9]) notably those connected with warfare, political propaganda, boundary making, or the preservation of law and order. Google Maps have mutated far beyond the abuses made possible by traditional mapping practices. There is no universal reading of these satellite images. Context is important. To those using Google Maps situated in countries where the US is hostile, satellite images are likely to signify a sinister message; ‘We’ can see ‘You’, ‘You’ have nowhere to hide. And with the increased use of drone planes by the US military, Google’s comprehensive aerial photographic coverage of the whole earth suggests, ‘We’ can strike ‘You’ wherever you are! It is no coincidence that the first images released to the public from the keyhole software, two years before it was taken over by Google, were fly overs and zoom-ins of Iraq produced for TV in support of the 2003 US led invasion.

It is part of the success of Google as a global corporation and Google Maps in general that a technology rooted in the cooperation between the corporate -military- surveillance agencies of a single nation state could achieve such a positive global reception into popular culture and penetrate so deeply into everyday practice.


[1] This is the expected operating altitude of GigitalGlobe’s Worldview-3 Satellite as stated in the satellites data Sheet available online at: – http://www.spaceimagingme.com/downloads/sensors/datasheets/DG_WorldView3_DS_2014.pdf [Accessed 17/2015]

[2] For a detailed examination of the arguments for and against the Mercator projection see Monmonier, 2004.

[3] See http://www.truearth.com

[4] CIA’s Impact on Technology – https://www.cia.gov/about-cia/cia-museum/experience-the-collection/text-version/stories/cias-impact-on-technology.html [Accessed 25/03/2015]

[5] Google Acquires Keyhole Corp – http://googlepress.blogspot.co.uk/2004/10/google-acquires-keyhole-corp.html [Accessed 25/03/2015]

[6] Oakland emails give another glimse into the Google-Military-Surveillance Complex – https://archive.today/W35WU#selection-955.174-955.187 (Accessed 20/03/2015)

[7] US Government Federal Business Opportunity website – https://www.fbo.gov/index?s=opportunity&mode=form&id=482ab868878ecd0bd81d978216718820&tab=core&tabmode=list [Accessed 26/03/2015]

[8] National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Commercial Remote Sensing – http://www.nesdis.noaa.gov/CRSRA/files/Appendix_2.pdf [Accessed 26/03/2015]

[9] Quoted from Harley, 1988.


Cosgrove, D. 2001. Apollo’s Eye: A Cartographic Genealogy of the Earth in the Western Imagination, The John Hopkins University Press.

Foucault, M. (1995) ‘Discipline and Punish’, Vintage books, England

Haraway, D. 1988. Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilage of Partial Perspective, Feminist studies, Vol 14, No.3.

Harris, C. (2006) ‘The Omniscient Eye: Satellite Imagery, “Battlespace Awareness,” and the Structures of the Imperial Gaze’. Surveillance & Society Vol 4 No1/2

Machiraju, R. 2014. Fixing the Mercator Projection for the Internet Age, IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics.

Monmonier, M. 2004, Rhumb Lines and Map Wars: A Social History of the Mercator Projection, University of Chicago.