Technology March 2006

Spy’s-eye View

Google Earth and its rival programs offer (civilians) a new way to look at the world
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As best I can figure, I have spent 35,000 to 40,000 hours of my life sitting at a computer. This knowledge does not improve my mood or self-esteem. But it brings into sharp relief the handful of moments at the keyboard I can distinctly remember, each involving a time when I realized that the computer had just done something important and new.

In the late 1970s, I marveled at the discovery that I could use my very first computer (a Processor Technology SOL-20) to save something I had drafted, then change it later on without having to retype the whole thing. In the early 1980s, I watched a message I had written go to its destination electronically, through a 300-baud modem I clamped onto a telephone handset.

In 1993, I tried a program called Mosaic, one of the very first browsers, and was amazed to see pictures and documents stored on someone else’s computer show up on my own screen. In 1995, I entered a few words into a search box and within seconds got back some more-or-less relevant information, via the early search engine AltaVista.

That was it for truly memorable moments, until last year when I first tried Google Earth.

The addictive nature of this pro­gram stems from three ele­ments. One is a set of satellite and aerial photos of the globe’s entire surface, which Google has acquired from a variety of public and private sources. These vary greatly in resolution, but the sharp ones, which already cover most major populated areas and are steadily expanding in range, are unnervingly clear. I now take it for granted that I can pick out every building—homes, schools, offices—I care about in the United States. But I can also see the tiny house where my family lived outside Tokyo, complete with ten-foot-square “back yard,” and the red-roofed colonial bungalow we rented in Kuala Lumpur, which now sits in the shadow of the Petronas Towers, two of the world’s tallest buildings. The village where my wife and I once worked in Ghana, on the other hand, is just a green blur.

The next element is Google Earth’s viewing system, which lets you “fly” from point to point. This sounds trivial, but I think it can profoundly reorient people’s sense of geography. We are used to thinking of places as being arrayed along roads or rail lines, or linked by airline routes. Taking a Google Earth “flight” is like driving through a city you knew only through subways, and seeing the surprising ways the pieces fit together.

Finally, the program has an imperfect but tantalizing 3D feature. The contours of terrain and, in certain cities, the heights of downtown structures are built into the database. Although the program’s standard view is straight down from overhead, you can tilt the perspective, until you’re looking from a low altitude or even ground level. This gives a dramatic sense of how, say, a ski resort fits into the surrounding mountains, or how the fjords of Greenland would look if you approached from the sea. You can’t count on the program to have enough accurate data to make this feature work everyplace—those Petronas Towers, when seen at a tilt, look no taller than my former house—but where it works it’s great.

The basic version of the program, which does everything described in this article, is free (it requires a broadband connection). For now, it runs only on PCs, but its creator, John Hanke, says that a Mac version is about to appear. Hanke and others developed the program at a small company called Keyhole, which Google bought two years ago. (Microsoft has released its counterpart program, Virtual Earth, at its Windows Live site, http://local.live.com. This program doesn’t have the flying or 3D features of Google Earth, but it does have superior close-up shots of many U.S. cities, including “bird’s-eye” views of about a dozen cities so breathtakingly detailed that in some cases you can see the individual panes in the windows. You can also see some structures that have been blurred out of Google Earth—for instance, the vice president’s home in Washington.)

Together these elements make Google Earth fascinating. What makes the program important is the trait it shares with other big steps forward in computing, like the previous ones I recall so sharply. It is not an end in itself but a beginning of new opportunities for innovation by others, based on the new tools it provides.

A huge theme in recent discussions of the Internet’s future is the growing importance of “user-created content.” In the old-media days of the twentieth century, small groups of specialists produced books, newspapers, or broadcasts that larger public audiences could consume. Now millions of people publish their views over the Internet, by producing blogs, or rating products or services online, or posting pictures and Webcasts for others to view, or creating networks of like-minded people who can share recommendations about vacation sites or bikes or restaurants.

The tools that have thus democratized publishing—or that have en­abled user-created content, if you prefer—are many and varied. But they rest upon the fundamental units of all modern Internet activity: URLs, links, and words. A URL (uniform resource locator) directs a browser to a particular set of files on a particular computer somewhere on Earth (each Web “page” is really a collection of files). Links take users from one set of files to another. The words in a file, indexed by search engines or catalogued as “tags,” serve as a guide to Web page content.

Google Earth of course employs links and URLs. Its basic unit of classification, however, is not a word but a set of global positioning system (GPS) coordinates, pinpointing a location on the Earth with uncanny precision. The Google Earth view of my neighborhood in Washington shows a red truck parked down the street. The front bumper of that truck has a different GPS address from the windshield. And in the same way that a “traditional” blog, if we can use that term, might have links pointing to a particular news item or posting, Google Earth allows the equivalent of bloggers to attach annotations to specific geographical points. These overlays consist of pictures, written descriptions, Internet links, or other data tied to the GPS coordinates of a particular place. When a Google Earth user zooms in on that place, the link to the information appears, usually as a clickable icon or button.

Since last June, when Google released the program and its toolkit for creating these overlays, many people have gotten to work. As with online book reviews at Amazon.com or entries on Wikipedia (the online encyclopedia in which anyone can write or edit an entry), the information supplied can range from authoritative to bogus. But nearly all of it is interesting.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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