From Spaceship Earth to Google Ocean: Planetary Icons, Indexes, and Infrastructures
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What sort of image does the planet Earth possess at the opening of the 21st century? If in the 1960s, the Whole Earth, the planet as seen from space, became a cold war, proto-environmentalist icon for a fragile ocean planet, in the 2010s, Google Earth, the globe encountered as a manipulable virtual object on our computer screens, has become an index for multiple and socially various interpretations and interventions; its thicket of satellite images, text legends, and street level photographs can all be tagged, commented upon, modified. In this essay, I examine a kindred image-object, Google Ocean, asking what sort of representation of the planetary sea is in the making in our digital days. Stirring up the century-old classification of signs by semiotician Charles Sanders Peirce, I argue that Google Ocean is a mottled mash of icons, indexes, and symbols of the marine and maritime world as well as a simultaneously dystopian and utopian (that is to say, heterotopian) diagram of the sea - though one that floats in a media ecology that tends to occlude its infrastructural history and conditions of possibility.
DepartmentMassachusetts Institute of Technology. Anthropology Program
Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science, New School University
Helmreich, Stefan. "From Spaceship Earth to Google Ocean: Planetary Icons, Indexes, and Infrastructures." Social Research 78.4 (Winter 2011): 1211-1242.
Final published version