The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
If a huge mass of garbage falls in the ocean and no one sees it, does it exist?
The first thing that I thought of when we started discussing our new call for entry, "seeing other worlds," was Google Earth. When Google Earth first came out in 2004, I remember the novelty of being able to zoom into my hometown to point out details to college friends, and having them pan across their own homes and favorite travel spots. We could travel across the globe without leaving our dorm rooms. Since then, Google has made it easy to see far-flung parts of the universe with Google Earth, Google Sky, and Google Ocean. These applications have turned out to be particularly potent tools for environmentalists. Teaming up with Google, projects like the UN Environment Programme’s Atlas of Our Changing Environment have used satellite photographs to effectively point out serious environmental problems, like the incredibly fast rate at which the Aral Sea is losing volume. Even more powerfully, Google Earth Outreach has given everyday citizens the chance to team up with larger environmental organizations to not only learn about environmental problems worldwide, but to also help geo-tag and visually track environmental problems in their own back yards. In these cases, the old adage "seeing is believing" proves true—being able to zoom in on the earth and see for oneself is key to understanding, and drumming up public support for, environmental issues. One unexpected side-effect: if you can’t see something on Google Earth, does it exist? In 2007 when the North Pacific Trash Vortex (also known as the Pacific Garbage Patch) was first heavily publicized, comments like these appeared (and still do appear) around the web: "Looked on Google earth, found nothing the size of Texas in that area 'cept for some water (which was actually a lot bigger than Texas). I'm all about saving the environment, but seriously, thats just absurd." "Google Earth coordinates or it didn't happen." "Would it be possible to google earth this? This thing isn't on any of my maps." "There are never EVER pics when this story comes up. If its as big as a continent, then tell the astronauts to take a picture!!!" "PICS OR IT DIDN'T HAPPEN" As Charles Moore, the American oceanographer who originally discovered the garbage vortex notes, the garbage can’t actually be seen via satellite because most of the rubbish is translucent, constantly in motion, and lies just below the water's surface. And though dozens of scrupulous scientific reports and even a recent Oprah episode shine a light on the Trash Vortex with on-the-ground photographs and video of parts of the Vortex, some are still anxious for an all-encompassing aerial view of the garbage patch from Google Earth. Now that satellite imagery offers an acute and instant "bigger picture" of phenomena occuring on the earth, the limited frame of the typical camera and video camera can no longer provide proof for many.