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800 Words

High Times

January 07, 2007|Dan Neil

Somewhere in The Hague there is a pale and fleshy man whom I have seen practically naked. This was not my idea. Or his either, I reckon. His error was to climb out onto his apartment roof one summer afternoon for an altogether man-tan while a high-resolution imaging satellite flew over his building.

Then it was only a matter of time--and a few billion dollars in aerospace infrastructure--before his magnificently beer-trained body found its way onto Google Earth, the God's-eye software that allows users to peer down onto any spot on the globe with mesmerizing clarity. From a virtual altitude of some 40,000 miles, the program allows you to zoom in close enough to, say, count the pigeons on the steps of Disney Concert Hall, or the number of Secret Service SUVs in front of Hillary Clinton's house in Chappaqua, N.Y.

Tinfoil-hat conspiracists, rejoice: There really is someone watching you.

I found the naked Dutchman courtesy of brothers Alex and James Turnbull, the founders of www.googlesightseeing.com and authors of the new, charming little book "Off the Map: The Most Amazing Sights on Earth as Seen by Satellite." The Turnbulls' website is a clearinghouse for Google Earthers, hobbyists with the energy (and unsupervised time at work, apparently) to comb through Google Earth's endless terabits of digitized cartography in an effort to turn up, say, an undiscovered geographic formation that looks like a phallus.

When it debuted less than two years ago, Google Earth seemed to be merely rubbernecking for armchair astronauts; it has since evolved as an astonishingly powerful tool to sift datasets so mountainous that they defy understanding. Thanks to Google Earth and Google Maps "mashups"--syntheses of map and imaging data with other databases--you can, for instance, instantly pinpoint everything from nearby Sunday garage sales to the dwellings of convicted child predators. You can locate Pinochet's torture centers or calculate the amount of carbon produced by one of Lindsay Lohan's private-jet/limo overnights to the Wynn Casino.

Google Earth has also emerged as a sensationally cinematic way to consider, idly, human existence. One the one hand, it reminds us how unsparingly insignificant we are, as invisible as bed lice. On the other, it reminds us of our crazy urge to foul the terrestrial nest. The Turnbulls' site, for example, offers an image of the Caribbean paradise of St. Croix, where the tarry effluent from the Cruzan rum factory is being pumped into the turquoise waters.

Sometimes the satellite view is a revelation. China's radical Three Gorges Dam, for instance, suggests a huge and dangerous arterial blockage in the heart of the country. From 1,000 feet, Neverland Ranch looks like some sort of amusement park purgatory, an awful, inescapable tangle, a leg trap for innocence.

The Turnbulls have gathered some amazing images: A cornfield maze in the form of Oprah Winfrey; a home near Portland, Ore., made from a recycled 727; a pink stuffed bunny 197 feet long splayed across the hills in Italy as if it had been thrown from a giant's highchair. Not surprisingly, marketers have latched onto Google Earth as a way to reach out to the notoriously cynical cybergeist: In November, KFC unveiled an 87,500-square-foot image of Colonel Sanders in the Nevada desert; in April, Maxim magazine constructed an 8,250-square-foot reproduction of its 100th anniversary cover in the desert south of Las Vegas, raising the possibility that aliens may one day ask to be taken to our Eva Longoria.

For the age of the velvet-rope, Google Earth's most compelling feature is its power to vault over privacy hedges, locked gates and roadblocks to take you to some of the world's most forbidden places. The super-secret Scientology library in the New Mexico desert? Harrison Ford's ranch? Right this way. Nations can be reclusive too. The Turnbulls' book will direct you to North Korea's gigantic and unfinished Ryugyong Hotel in downtown Pyongyang, a city that looks every bit as scary and despondent as you might think.

Our own secrets aren't kept much better. Enterprising terrorists can call up detailed maps of nuclear power plants and government buildings as easily as ordering flowers from FTD.com.

Yet, for me--and from what I can gather in online forums, for most people--the first order of business is auto-location. I duly typed in my address, and soon the camera's eye was plunging through the clouds, peregrine-like, to finally focus on the flat, geometric roof of my house in Eagle Rock. And then I proceeded to trace back my entire life through satellite imagery. There's the house where I lost my virginity; there's Mr. Wetherington's field, where I primed tobacco as a kid; there's the old high school; there's my first house, with the rolled asphalt roofing I put on 16 years ago. Still looks good.

There's something deeply reassuring about a Google Earth autobiography. It's easy to imagine existence as a long tunnel through which we pass carrying a torch, lighting only the phenomena around us, and what we leave behind darkens into nonexistence. With Google Earth, we can instantly revisit the past, to assure ourselves that it was indeed real, it still exists and, like Kilroy, we were there.

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