The Swastika, Google Earth and reading the world…

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So, as reported recently in the Guardian, we have proof that Google Earth has begun to show us the world in a completely different way. Our sense of space, of shape and location is altered by the simple means of altering the angle of our viewpoint from the horizontal to anywhere up to vertical. The process of engagement is fascinating. The first point of call on encountering Google Earth is the familiar – the domestic. In other words one’s home. And then onto locations one has visited, and then on again to locations one hasn’t. The internet is littered with imagery drawn from Google Earth. Intrigued by Area 51, or Russian Federation military airbases? Curious about the urban layout of down town Saigon or Melbourne? It is all there in varying resolutions. These resolutions are, it has to be noted, often uniquely political. Certain installations are not clearly visible due to their military or political significance.

And it is also uniquely political as cartography (and after all, what else is Google Earth if not a photographic map of the Earth?) always has been. Google bowed to the wishes of U.S. Vice-President Cheney to not show the precise location of his residence in Washington. The political divisions of the world can be overlaid. Prominent landmarks can be ‘bookmarked’, and one can pinpoint locations of personal interest at will.

The most recent issue raised by Google Earth? A US Navy installation in California which, as seen in the image above taken from Google Earth, has the misfortune to be ‘reminiscent’ of a Swastika when seen from overhead.

One small visual curiosity is that the building is not a true Swastika. The L-shaped buildings are not arrayed around a central point equally and therefore the overall shape is distorted. While this of some interest I think that the way in which the story has been represented visually in the media is of more intriguing because the imagery has not been represented in a ‘neutral’ way.

In some instances, as above, the original image from Google Earth is used. This gives a fairly good representation of the Swastika shape since the actual distortion is masked by the angle. But this is quite misleading since a ‘proper’ Swastika configuration is visibly different when set on a flat plane.

Here by way of comparison is the Swastika used by National Socialism.

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In the printed newspaper and on the Guardian website the distortion is quite evident.
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Note the space at the hub of the Swastika and the way in which the arms are of different lengths. In a subsequent web-based image on the Guardian website the photograph is turned through 180º. This increases the sense of ‘compression’ of the symbol.

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In some instances the image, as on the UK Daily Mail site, is rotated 45º in order to more closely emulate the configuration used by the National Socialists.

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But overall, the image drawn from GoogleEarth at the foot of this post is probably the one which most closely replicates a Swastika.

The point is that none of the articles in print or web had an accompanying Swastika so that the viewer could make a comparison. A deliberate omission in order to make the story more provocative? It seems likely.

And the reality is that this building, designed and built in a modernist idiom has the bad fortune to be similar, if not quite the same as the symbol. Compared and contrasted with the visual imagery already noted here it appears to be, in some respects, an accident waiting to happen. And that means that the significations of this usage are somewhat different to the Irish laundry which the Swastika as a symbol after the Second World War.

Of course, it is very typical of our age that this was not an issue in the forty odd years the building has been extant, but only came to prominence with the advent of Google Earth. Once more this suggests a remarkable ‘blindness’ towards matters of design (although one also suspects that the U.S. Navy was in no hurry to advertise this particularly unfortunate configuration).

Is it important? There has been some criticism from the Jewish community in the U.S., and that sensitivity is entirely understandable. The U.S. navy has made it clear that it will ‘disguise’ the shape by the use of covered walkways, solar panels and other devices. But in visual terms there is the sense that this is not quite as clear cut as the media presents it, or as the media presentation has sought to shape it.

Ciarán Swan

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