Friday, July 25, 2014

Battling to blur: ground truth in Ukraine

Images of shrapnel perforated fuselage, a comment by an Australian forensic expert in The Independent, and a brief shot of a Cranfield expert on military wreckage: these three things yesterday jarred my mind back into thinking about counter-mapping. 

I gave a talk last year , at the yearly Socio-cultural knowledge workshop at Cranfield about this very topic.  My talk was called "Battle to blur: counter-mapping and politics of ground truth" in which I theorised a new way of talking about counter-mapping from the perspective of those wishing to blur the 'truth' on the ground due to concerns about privacy, both personal (i.e. people don't need to know what the insides and outsides of our houses look like and if they do there estate agents for that) and locational (in the sense that potential thieves could case your house using Google Street View).

Emerging from indigenous struggles for land rights and territorial control, counter-mapping's original impulse was towards mapping the 'ground truth' back in to blank white spaces on maps, spaces left intentionally blank by cartographers in service to state, corporate, or colonial interests.  The issue of blurring was always there in the background but only as an ethical afterthought: yes, we want the world to know (the Gitksan of northwestern BC, hypothetically for example, might have said) that we exist, but at the same time we need to protect access to traditional hunting and spiritual places lest they become overrun by consumers of the new counter-map. 

The corporations have themselves now virtually eliminated the idea of blank space on a map (unless it is 'really' there) and everything that can be shown is being shown (so the dogma goes), given satellite imagery covering the whole of the globe at extremely high resolution and free downloads of Google Earth for all. 

Germany, for cultural and historical reasons, has a large number of 'blurrers', those exercising their 'right to disappear' from Google Street View (by clicking on 'report a problem' on the street view) not because there's anything to hide, but because of a basic need for privacy that underwrites civil society  (Nagel, 2002).

Separatist rebels in Ukraine, on the other hand, battle to blur the 10 mile oblong of territory (and it is just that: heavily demarcated land) upon which the Malaysian Airlines flight went down not for ethical or civilised reasons, but to hinder the process of piecing together what went wrong. 

I wonder to what extent investigators will be able to use high resolution imagery (Parks, 2005) to do their work -- short of being able to physically tag objects, this will be done on-screen using remote sensing , algorithms, and computerised 'training' techniques.  There will be two main levels of the puzzle to sort into overlays, if you will, initially -- that level at which the missile impact and crash landing took place; and that level at which tampering and the sprinkling of additional 'red herring' information took place, to throw investigators off the track.

Nagel, Thomas.  2002.  Concealment and Exposure.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Parks, Lisa.  2005.  Cultures in Orbit.  Durham and London: Duke University Press.

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