Andrew Pilsch Blog

On Infrastructure, pt. 1: Gods and Robots

I just finished Nathaniel Rivers’s essay, “Stranger Attractions: Infrastructure Made Alien in the work of Bruno Latour and Jenny Odell.” I thought it was a good read on infrastructure, Latour, rhetoric, and art. Rivers is discussing Jenny Odell’s artwork as a means of making strange the everyday landscape of infrastructure, the objects and artifacts that make possible our modernity. I have two ideas provoked by the essay. This one concerns the question of Google Maps and God. The other, which I’ll get to tomorrow, concerns humans and distance in Bruno Latour.

Rivers’s essay discusses Odell’s Satellite Collections, a series of still lifes composed of objects cut from the images of Google Map’s satellite gaze and arranged into collages. Rivers is discussing this project as an example of the kind of political art Latour wants to reactivate with the Making Things Public exhibition he curated:

We need new ways to think through and to re-present the world as a composition of complex interactions among humans and nonhumans. Latour compels me to think of infrastructure as tripartite: scientific, political, and artistic.

From this discussion of infrastructure as “riveting” together science, politics and art, Rivers raises the specter of mastery that could haunt Odell and Latour’s project,

There is likewise a risk in the kinds of views Odell composes—views we do not necessarily have access to on a daily basis (save those of us, like Odell, with a penchant for infrastructure and Google Maps). Now, I hesitate to say Gods eye view (as one author has described it), which in imagining an all seeing eye, suggests that we are finally seeing the thing as it really is, from above. The risk, like that of decontextualizing above, never fully materializes. There is an important, vital strangeness in Odell’s work, much as there is in Latour’s.

I really like this point Rivers is making. In the “follow the actors” methodology Latour has developed throughout his career, one gets the sense that there is no final position of mastery, no ability to see the totality of the things he’s studying, even at the end of any given project.1

However, what got me thinking is the mention of the “Gods eye view” in Rivers account, a view he rightly rejects. The most, I think, obvious cultural reading of Google Maps is this one that Rivers alludes to: its presentation of massive quantities of satellite images lets us see what God might see. Obviously, this reading is an oversimplification, at best, of what Google Maps does.

A phenomenon that’s always interested me (and that is presumably becoming more rare as Google Maps becomes more naturalized) is the desire to see your house from space upon first using Google Maps. It’s actually something I still do fairly regularly (for no good reason): when I’m bored and run out of things to read online, sometimes I fire up Google Maps, look at my house, and then zoom around the neighborhood.

I partly resist the urge to list reasons for this behavior because I’m not sure why I do it. One reason, though, is might be it seems very confirming: “my house exists” or “this is where I am.” At the same time, though, what does Google Maps actually tell us about place or experience? As Rivers points out, Google Maps doesn’t actually conform to a viewpoint we have everyday. If anything, they’re a militarized vision of the world: “this is what a spy satellite thinks about where I live.”

This realization, that Google Maps is ultimately a making-public of the military-industrial gaze (the world as target), is an uncomfortable one, but here’s something else: what if Google Maps actually is a Gods eye view, but not in the way we usually mean it?

Specifically, I wonder if my occasional obsession with looking at my house from space mirrors a larger desire for some kind of empirical verification of my existence, a desire formerly satisfied by something like religion or even Enlightenment science. A system like Google Maps often only tells us what we already know (“That is my beautiful house!” we optimistically declare while looking from space at our house. “There is my large automobile!”).

In an age marked by uncertainty even about the threats we face—the difference between “a global problem predicated upon our complex embeddedness in the world” as Rivers puts and, say, a recognized Enemy Other such as the USSR or The Devil—don’t these images imply some kind of situatedness, don’t they appeal to some lost sense of empirical, objective truth outside of any construction?

But of course, something like Google Maps is heavily constructed and, as Odell’s art establishes, in no way anymore empirical than our own experiences. But we still seem to crave some kind of external verification of our existence, some kind of appeal to a former mastery. So, I wonder if, in the end, looking at your house in Google Maps is not looking from the position of a master but verifying that a master could see us at all.

  1. For me, this is partly where the humor comes into Latour’s work. After all the dirt in “Circulating Reference,” one gets no closer to understanding where science actually happens or what a fact actually is. Similarly, when the culprit is finally caught in Latour’s detective novel of a murdered transit system (Aramis), the solution to the mystery is in no way illuminating. One imagines Latour’s Gallic shrug in response. 

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