Truth may be the first casualty of war or, nowadays, of politics, but few of us would have thought of using a map to look for lies. But thanks to Google Maps and other geographic meddlers, there may now be fewer lies in a Donald Trump speech than on the face of the good Earth. It’s not hard to find places Google doesn’t want you to see, but not all are as obvious as its satellite image of a part of southern Tibet. There, the entire village of Guwacun lies under an unsubtle grey rectangle. Such geographical censorship goes far beyond pandering to mandarins in some Chinese ministry of paranoia. Take democratic, advanced, high-tech Israel, for example. Only low-resolution images of the entire country and the surrounding Palestinian territories are available online. Google alone is not to blame for this — America is. In 1997, the US government passed a law called the Kyl–Bingaman Amendment. This law prohibited American authorities from granting a license for collecting or disseminating high-resolution satellite images of Israel. The US mandated censorship of commercial satellite images for no other country in the world except Israel.
The largest global sources of commercial satellite imagery include online resources, such as Google and Microsoft’s Bing. Since they are American, the US has used the “Israel images amendment” as a powerful tool for suppressing information. Hence, images of Israel on Google Earth are deliberately blurred. Strangely, anyone in the world can zoom in on crisp and detailed pictures of the Pentagon or GRU headquarters in Moscow, but all one can see of Tel Aviv’s public central square and gardens is a fuzzy grey blur. This odd restriction has frustrated archaeologists and other scientists who depend on satellite imagery to survey areas of interest to their disciplines. It does, however, enable Israel to conceal practices in the occupied Palestinian territories that attract international censure. These include expanding Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Golan Heights, demolitions of Palestinian homes, and abuses of power by the military in clashes with Gaza. Read more »
I remain convinced, despite my anthropological training not to generalize, that every society has an aesthetic, a particular repetition of pattern, that informs its material manifestation. In contradiction to the anthropological view that you must delve under the surface to understand a place, I’m going to suggest that this aesthetic is most powerfully visible to the uninitiated. The observant tourist, for instance, who sees everything through a child’s indiscriminate and unfiltered gaze. Patterns pop out to the uninitiated. For locals, by contrast, patterns harbor familiarity, wholeness, comfort, rootedness. Patterns are woven into the everyday, felt, but no longer seen. On my first visit to Japan, I was struck by the layered rows of boxes I saw everywhere, in the arrangements of windows, proportions of houses, the way images were arrayed on fliers and ads, far beyond what I would expect by accident or convenience. I experienced the boxes as a powerful imprint on my surroundings wherever I went. Perhaps I was wrong. A friend who is a specialist on Japan doesn’t see it. Does the forest have a shape without its trees? Nonetheless, I will continue with my conceit, on the justification that I am also a writer and writers gleefully play with any patterns they see, even if an anthropologist would tell them that without context, there is no meaning. No writer believes that; her job is to create meaning, not analyze it.
I am now in Be’er Sheva in the Negev desert, teaching a three-week course at Ben Gurion University. A driver brought me from Tel Aviv airport to my residence in a ten-story building that towers over the neighborhood. The streets near the residence are little more than rows of cement rooms with walled-in tile forecourts. Behind them loom three- and four-story apartment buildings of unfinished cement without ornamentation or color. There is little attention to detail and the buildings are crumbling, festooned with wires and rusting grates. They remind me of bunkers with blank walls and slits for windows. That is the only pattern I see beyond the ubiquitous lack of ornament. But it is a pattern.