On Google Earth and the Life Narrative

  • Sumo

The Satellite, the Screen, and the City: On Google Earth and the Life Narrative

Austrian author Robert Musil begins his 1930 novel The Man Without Qualities with a passage that is among the most famous in the modern era. A disembodied narrator first observes an atmospheric depression. His gaze then swiftly darts towards a big city, which is described as a place where urban life throbs like “one great rhythmic beat as well as the chronic discord and mutual displacement of all its contending rhythms.”[ii] Within a few paragraphs the focal point descends to street level, zeroing in on an anonymous couple about to witness a car accident. In these first few pages of The Man Without Qualities, Musil has arguably perfected upon two centuries of literary storytelling. The almighty plunge of the narrator’s gaze, from clouds to street life, proclaims the definitive supremacy of the literary eye. From this point onwards, no viewpoint would escape it; no angle would prove to be inaccessible. Michel de Certeau would later famously associate a similar all-encompassing perspective with a “pulsion scopique”, a fantasy of dominance unconsciously tied to the authoritarian regulation of civil life.[iii] Yet, at the time of The Man Without Qualities, this omnipotent perspective carried a different meaning. By positing an omniscient viewpoint in the sky, Musil was attempting to measure up to the heritage of the classical order, while challenging its seemingly perverted legacy at the hands of nineteenth century scientism. The classical order had been entirely maintained by the naturalism of cause and effect, whose infallible harmony was in turn confirmed by the mystery of God’s ways justifying it from beginning to end. The nineteenth century achieved the reduction of this system due to the predominance of scientific pragmatism. This resulted in the destitution of the self as a functional and sufficient model of reason. More precisely, from Musil’s standpoint, it meant the separation of the individual from the very qualities that made him unique. The Enlightenment project had exhausted its course; individualism no longer sufficed for embracing the totality of understanding while simultaneously remaining within the realm of truth. The new promise was that the techniques of scientific objectivity alone would henceforth offer the perspectives, the unprecedented measures, and the previously unimaginable viewpoints needed for an accurate description of the world. Together they would create an apparatus of accuracy, providing concrete meaning of and to the world while sacrificing the materiality of the human body and the emotionality of the mind. Musil’s opening to The Man Without Qualities challenges this scientific objectivity in favour of a new interrelation between novelistic storytelling and the perception of space.

Michel Serres has summarized how Musil’s work actually resulted in an inversion of the original nature of the novel as having been tailored on the historical consciousness. An initial scene that is dominated by climatic forecasts and the chaos of a city can no longer instigate a chain of historical events in the classic, or even in the Hegelian sense. Rather, with these kinds of descriptions we find ourselves in the realm of statistics, where every sequence of events is laid out on an even plane of probability, and where concepts such as the priority of right, intrinsic value, subjective agency, and hierarchy are diminished. “Here is the undatable moment, here is the placeless place where the classical order vanishes like a superficial and obsolete spectacle,”[iv] writes Serres. For a novel to result all the same from this context is the crucial lesson that Musil provided his contemporary readership. This lesson tells us that the struggle between subjective perception and technical radicalisation brought a challenge not only for modern literary aesthetics, but also for imagination itself. For the latter to prevail, it was precisely the expansion of the narrative viewpoint that was needed. Narration had to be expanded and relocated. It had to embrace the mass movements of clouds as much as the minute activity inside particles. There were no sufficient reasons for keeping the scope of the visual field of a story enclosed within the boundaries of a pedestrian, subjective experience. There was a significant liberation for literary realism, even though it presented an enormous ordeal as well as a considerable effort for the novelist: The Man Without Qualities remains unfinished at no less than 2000 pages. Yet this did not stop Musil’s grand novel from setting the tone for a major part of twentieth century intellectual modernity. Musil showed that literary imagination, having undergone a colossal transformation, could encapsulate the narration of life-stories inside a globalized space. Within this space, the most important tragedies result from occurrences generated from the heights and the depths, from beneath or beyond perception, in places where life is governed by incidents devoid of human involvement.

Such a world foreshadows our own time in many ways, and has been so analysed by most Anglophone commentators of Musil,[v] be it through the lens of a crisis of modernity,[vi] or through its renewed assertion.[vii] However, it is not the often discussed absence of qualities of Musil’s characters that interests us here, nor is it the intricate style of his philosophical essay, and neither is it the intriguing development in his approach to the novel. There is yet another element in the text that is at least equally important: the de-humanized space of atmospheric currents is placed in direct relation with that of the city. Moreover, it is only from an angle inaccessible to the naked eye, therefore demanding an act of pure imagination, that this conceptual totality—what we call “city”—can be perceived. Musil is explicit in this matter: the slightest change in point of view can transform the initial picture into an assortment of “narrow streets” being crossed by “dark clusters of pedestrians form[ing] cloudlike strings,” and where “hundreds of noises wove themselves into a wiry texture of sound with barbs protruding here and there.”[viii] Musil’s novel performs a crucial cultural change in the shape of the city; or more accurately, a change in the manner in which the city becomes visible as a holistic system. This change has become widely described elsewhere as the transition from city to urban, or in Marxist terms, the emergence of the modern capitalist city.[ix] For our purposes, this transition can be better understood through the analysis of the origins of the liberal urban space as proposed by Michel Foucault in his lectures at the Collège de France.

The contingency, the unpredictability, and the statistical representation of reality that underpin Musil’s novel are undoubtedly rooted in the scientific enthusiasm of La Belle Époque. But Foucault shows that these values also possess a specific space of reference, as well as an ancestry: they correspond to the metropolitan city-spaces that were impacted, and to a varying extent produced, by the initial growth of industrial capitalism. The subsequent rise of statistical models provided these urban spaces with a conceptual form despite their increasing instability. As Foucault explains further, this was actually the result of a longer process. The antiquated desire for perceiving the city as a unique, delineated space had been deeply transformed during the previous century due to the rise of the liberal state. The notion of city necessarily incorporated the governance of civilian life, which was seen as a diverse public entity composed of numerous imbalanced smaller groups. Delineating the exact borders wherein these groups existed was not important; but supressing their excesses, foretelling their fluctuations, and managing their growth was.[x] Following this logic, neighbourhoods became dwelling zones, streets became areas of disorder or contagion, and every public place became an opportunity for authoritarian intervention. Ultimately, the city itself took the shape of a statistical configuration hallmarked by control and management: “In the strong sense of these terms, to police and to urbanize is the same thing.”[xi] This is why the Vienna of The Man Without Qualities is not an arbitrary choice of location, despite Musil’s claim that the name shouldn’t have particular significance.[xii] The narrative gaze that zooms in on Vienna could not fixate on another object, since this gaze was itself molded by the epistemological conditions and the civic experience of the modern European metropolis. This gaze was the equivalent of a hovering conscience for the city’s civil engineering and urban template. It was a material system that gave purpose and direction to the renewed literary eye of the modern novel so it would not remain aimlessly adrift among the clouds. Thus, only in relation to the European city of the early twentieth century was it possible for the disembodied gaze imagined by Musil to become the subject of a narrative.

What does this teach us today? What is there left to question? Firstly, what Foucault has called the liberal gouvernementalité of civilian space demands the distinction between the city and the urban. We now know, thanks to Henri Lefebvre, that our society has witnessed the establishment of a transcultural and transnational hegemony of the urban as a force of social production which, in times of advanced capitalism, is no longer limited to the material boundaries of the city. The urban has become a “rationality communicated by the city,” a way of being in a world that “penetrate[s] the countryside” and conquers new ground everyday.[xiii] Therefore, it is no longer the city as a specific place that matters, but a generalization of the values that the city imposes, bends and disseminates on a global scale.[xiv] Thierry Paquot, in his early works, renews this critique by distancing himself from its Marxist outlook, choosing rather to associate it with the development of the individual sphere of a homo urbanus.[xv] He dates the emergence of this figure at a time that coincides with the appearance of the liberal production of urban life. That is to say, its occurrence is simultaneous to the 18th century emergence of Foucault’s supposed reciprocity between urban form and the need for governmental control over the effects of the spatial clustering of the population. The conceptual character of homo urbanus is defined not by intrinsic traits, but by the sprawl and distribution of its visible manifestations. It can be said that homo urbanus embodies the extension of the condition that Georg Simmel famously diagnosed for the individual living in the big city shortly before Musil’s time. For this individual “every banal and exterior events are ultimately tied to deeper options about the style and the meaning of life.”[xvi] A century later, homo urbanus portrays the individual who no longer needs to inhabit the city, because the city has come to inhabit him. Homo urbanus carries the urban within him regardless of where he stands. It is not the stable form of the classical city that produces him; rather, it is quite the opposite. It is the constant movement of urbanization, the constant expansion of everyday urban modes of production that dictate both his experience of space and his awareness of private and social life.    

The second reason that invites further questioning stems from a more recent phenomenon that brings the revolutionary viewpoint expressed within The Man Without Qualities back to the foreground. This phenomenon is unrelated to literature yet maintains the narrative as a crucial constitutive element. Between June 2005 and April 2008, virtually everyone —and anyone— has gained access to the literary point of view invented almost a century earlier by Robert Musil in his novel. Why these two dates? 2005 and 2008 is the timespan separating the public launch of Google Earth and its complete integration with two other spatial visualisation tools, namely Google Maps and Google Street View. Visually, these two dates mark a transition from the atmospheric to the street-level point of view. Through this transition, previously nonexistent relations can be foreseen between the representation of the physical environment and our desire to narrate everyday life. However, when it comes to Google, criticism has thus far focused almost exclusively on questions related to knowledge monopoly, to intellectual property, and on the right to privacy; the underlying assumption being that the market economy and the information economy are Google’s sole purposes.[xvii] Thus, there are various other possible assessments with regard to the recent integration of satellite visualization interfaces in the narrative realm of daily life.

The most pressing remark is that the shift from a cloud-level to a street-level viewpoint no longer necessitates an involvement of the imaginary. Whatever the man without qualities couldn’t clearly see, we can behold today. The satellite images are concrete. Their visual sequence is fluid. There are no gaps. There are no pauses, no need for digression, no linguistic detours, no rhetorical tropes, and thus no moments of stillness allowing doubt and reverie to seep in. For the Google earth user, the opening of the visual field is maximised. Consequentially, a feeling shared through a multitude of stories seems to have faded: that of a concave world where things, events, and even other people do not appear completely, but rather do so as shimmering apparitions, triggering our desire because, like language itself, they conceal as much as they reveal. Google Earth seems to destroy this opportunity for pondering by making everything accessible to the naked eye without emphasizing anything in particular, starting with the horizon upon which we project and interpret what we see: the geography, the globe in its totality.[xviii]

Is this loss any reason to become disenchanted? We should not prematurely declare a fatal impoverishment of imagination just yet. If we consider the criteria for using Google’s interface, we notice that the traditionally grounded viewpoint of the world (equivalent to the writer’s position) has been replaced by a plane of immanence where the freedom of visual movement has superseded the freedom of literary imagination. Difference and repetition, concepts along with their diachronic or synchronic organization, in short the cardinal components of historical thought, are now virtually tied with the movement on the satellite imagery in addition to their being structured in language. The trigger and first requirement for narrative imagination thus becomes mobility. Prior to becoming another in language, the Google earth user becomes another in space. Despite manifest similarities, this demands being differentiated from previous subjective conceptions like the out-dated notion of ubiquity, or the concept of nomadism in postmodern identities. Rather, the Google Earth interface provides the ability to come and go freely within a completely controlled universe while maintaining the sense of distance as a constant promise, a source of leisure, or even as an unexpected pleasure. Despite the topographical nature of the data, and the flawless realism of the images, we somehow find ourselves detached from the traditional travel narrative. Because in the travel narrative, as Gérard Cogez points out, “writing always ends up having the last word,”[xix] implying that the rhythm of writing and reading will always encompass and somehow consume the rhythm of the true travel experience. In fact, we can more accurately draw a comparison between the concrete media experience provided by Google Earth and the imagination’s ability to retrieve memories of spaces as they occur during the dream process. The Google Earth interface allows us to gaze upon the image of a place as many times as we wish, at a speed and at an angle that we freely choose. The photographic authenticity of the satellite images reinforces the feeling that no place on the planet can escape our reach, our desire to explore and to possess it. Therein remains a similarity with the psychoanalytical subject: What we recreate through this exploration coincides with the essence of early childhood narratives, that of fantasies imagined while half-asleep, when streets, oceans, deserts and forests spill into one another without logical transition. Reveries where there are no inhibitions preventing us from suddenly flying over to stand next to an object of repressed desire, where there is no hesitation to revisit place after place like the many layers of our memories.

In summing up yet moving beyond these traditions of the spatialized subject, the Google Earth interface relieves us of our modern obsession for grasping the coherence of the world by counterbalancing the fantasy for omnipresence with the thirst to explore, and by providing a concrete spatial representation that requires no further effort on our part for piecing the photographed world together. Ultimately, an old method of storytelling has been revived whereby a founding feature of the narrative imaginary functions in much the same way as metaphor. We find a succession of places that are detached from their immediate context enthralling because it implies a reconciliation of what Paul Ricoeur has called “mortal time and monumental time.”[xx] This reconciliation suggests that individual stories are only fragments, or merely attempts at portraying a much larger and impossible setting wherein spaces on the planet, no matter their nature, would all be ultimately juxtaposed to form a unique and absolute storyline. The time of thought and the time of objects, which were not meant to exist in the same realm, seemingly do so on the Google Earth visual surface.

And yet, this belief is disproved by the very interface that revives it. It is Musil’s modern lesson that comes back to haunt us: every scientific ideal has a counterpart. As a matter of fact, Google Earth does not primarily represent an all-encompassing gaze on geography. More fundamentally, it is the result of an encounter between a technology and a discourse. On the one hand, there is the technological representation of the gaze: the satellite-eye and the imagery it produces in the form of mechanically interpretable and visually translatable data. On the other hand, there is the discursive claim that this gaze is all-encompassing. The technological aspect is not related to narration; but the notion of ultimate inclusivity is. Indeed the claim is utopic. Utopia involves the triumph of a rationality grounded in language over the chaotic swarm of real spaces, which is why it has been and remains to be limited to the well-bordered confines of a given epistemological and cultural context. Without going so far as to see in the utopia a systematic expression of the economic and political unconscious, like Fredric Jameson has done,[xxi] one can consider utopia to be the mirror image of the civil society that produces it. As Françoise Choay explains, utopia offers an idealized snapshot of the society, which in turn provides it with a meaningful structure and identity.[xxii] This is why utopias provide a rhetorical organization of space: a monumentalization of certain shapes, an insistence on certain areas or sectors, as well as an aesthetic regulation of what can be said, represented and practiced in civilian life. In light of all this, our first reaction would be to consider Google Earth to be a welcome revival of the utopian dream. Google Earth would be the first utopian representation resulting not from a civic idea, or from a system of monumentalized ideas, but rather from an active and direct intervention of the population, that is of the undefined and growing number of people using the interface. In this sense, Google Earth would be the first democratized and globalized utopia, one that has no point of reference in a given culture or society, or even in any language. And yet, what we have seen up to now points to the impossibility of such a prospect. The Google-gaze remains limited by its origin, literally by its mode of production. We are about to realize that this origin organizes, prioritizes and transmits elements of an imaginary that is fundamentally urban. Therefore the designer and the user of Google Earth are closely related: they are both homo urbanus. The Google interface certainly feeds into the common idea of a globalized world, but it is a globalization that brings to mind Henri Lefebvre’s criticism of the urban rationality and ascendancy over life itself. This version of globalization begs us ponder what today’s concept of the global city entails, demanding a critique such as the one initially proposed by Saskia Sassen.[xxiii] The Google satellite view is the triumph of an urbanized gaze and represents homo urbanus’ mind extending over the entire globe.

If we go back to our analogy with The Man Without Qualities, we’ll note that the car accident ending the descending movement of the narrative gaze, and also brutally halting the progression of the couple on the sidewalk, hints at an important distinction we now need to make. There eventually comes a point where technology and gaze become divided, the former stays enclosed in its pragmatism while the latter is susceptible to the chaos of daily life. We have to bring that same distinction to the technology behind Google Earth and to the cultural value that characterizes its use. The Global Positioning System (GPS) was designed in the 1960s to expand and maximize the usefulness of the numerous surveillance satellites that had been put into orbit since the beginning of the Cold War. It was applied to poorly mapped areas of the globe, and it was initially intended for specific military and nautical purposes.[xxiv] But the democratization and commercialization of satellite imagery on portable screens, its imbrication with the habits, the small gestures and the performances of daily life is much more recent. It is the result of a rhythm of life that cannot be dissociated from contemporary urban living. Google Maps and Google Street View are obviously designed according to road maps, their layout offering a mirror image of today’s global urban networks of circulation.[xxv] But even with Google Earth, we notice that the addition of increasingly detailed satellite images, from its inception to today, has progressed in waves of concentric circles starting with the downtown areas of the most important cities, then moving from those of average size to exurban and rural enclaves, before including uninhabited areas. Such an evolution of the interface’s visibility was oriented to satisfy the greater interest of its users, an interest that in turn corresponds to the advancement of urban rationality over the physical territory.

Google Earth thus presents a utopia that is closely related to the production and movements of contemporary urbanization. The free interactive website created by Chris Milk in 2010, “The Wilderness Downtown,”[xxvi] offers a telling example in this respect. It was designed in collaboration with the Google Creative Lab, which financed it, and the Canadian band Arcade Fire. It provides a personalized interactive experience of the song “We Used to Wait” by the aforementioned group, released in the same year on their album “The Suburbs.”


On the homepage, the user is prompted to provide the address of his former childhood residence. A close-up of a kid running down a suburban street appears as the song starts. Moments later, another browser window opens; a digitized flock of birds is shown swirling on the backdrop of a sepia sky. As the music rises in intensity, the birds begin to descend. A series of windows then open in rapid succession on the screen: apart from the one that continues to show the kid running, they all display images from the Google interface, one of which is invaded by the flock of birds that seems to be heading towards a specific spot, while others display houses, buildings, as well as roads and intersections taken from Google Street View’s image bank. The user soon realizes that the images on the screen are illustrating the area around the address he initially typed in. He is revisiting his own childhood neighbourhood through the Google imagery. The lyrics are in sync with this scene: “Now our lives are changing fast / hope that something pure can last.” The running figure eventually stops and begins to look around. The point of origin, the childhood home, has been reached. The interface is designed so that this place fills the screen just as the music reaches the moment of its sharpest pathos in a swirling crescendo. The final image takes the user back to the homepage where he is encouraged to “write a postcard of advice to the younger […] [version of himself] that lived there.”[xxvii] The technology involved in this project is well mastered, and the overall effect is impressive.




There are two objectives underlying The Wilderness Downtown and the designers themselves have made them clear. The first objective is technical as much as commercial: to emphasize the efficiency of the Google Chrome web browser with HTML5 programming. This is augmented by the fact that the video clip was presented without detours as a technical and experimental venture. The second objective is more narrative in nature. The Wilderness Downtown aims to combine the emotional, the visual, the spatial, and the individual within an overarching sense of becoming:

Some of us now live far away from the places where we grew up, and I’ve often found something quite evocative and wistful about looking at photos of the streets where I used to live. A few of us decided to capture this feeling of nostalgia in an interactive music experience that we developed for the web.[xxviii]

Above are the words of the Google project manager, Aaron Sorkin. We can add those of the director, Chris Milk:

It’s easy to lose the humanity when you start showcasing tech. Google Maps and Street View embody that contradiction though. It’s cold high-tech that can be incredibly emotional when used in the right context. The whole piece is full of contradictions. It’s essentially human nostalgia produced by the most advanced technology available today.[xxix]

The technological contradiction that Milk alludes to subscribes to the most classical symbolism: the juxtaposition of the warmth of flesh with the coldness of metal, the immediacy of the senses against the abstraction of algorithms. Nothing new on this front. This is what Gaston Bachelard was already exploring in the middle of the last century. But the direct association between satellite imagery and nostalgia is much more surprising. It hints at a cultural and geographic mobility that is pre-existent to the creative mobility implied by the use of Google Earth’s interface.

Those susceptible to sobbing over the image of their childhood home belong to the very real growing diaspora of (mostly) middle-class individuals within the current stage of capitalism. By choosing nostalgia as a central theme, The Wilderness Downtown has not only shaped its public, it has also given form to its social space of reference. It is a space of undefined borders where dislocation functions as an a priori for the subjective identity. In such a construct, leaving one’s nest means more than just becoming an adult, a worker and a citizen outside of the family sphere; it means doing so in a space that is potentially detached from the arrangement of recognizable signs and symbols that compose the place of origin in one’s memory. Such is the neoliberal territorial perspective, one of global city networks and of a required adaptability to high circulation, flux, and transhumance. Therefore, becoming in this world really means relocating oneself in a radius sufficiently remote from the birthplace so that nostalgia ends up not taking shape according to time, but rather according to space, to distances. In order to grasp this space, in order to literally measure the distance from past self to present self, one needs a suitable narrative model, that is a model which won’t allow the bitterness and anxiety of exile to take over. This model must be able to encapsulate the melancholy of a life estranged while still proving itself capable of providing consolation. Google Earth provides the only world of reference allowing for this model. It is a surface world, adequate and complete, because it is achieved beyond the approximate, and beyond the unheimlich. All the dots are connected right under our noses and at the tip of our fingers in the calm predictability of satellite images, each corresponding to a cultural place and a precise geolocation. Google Earth ingenuously yet calmly works to subdue today’s spatiality.

But we know that this predictability and this peace are unnatural in much the same way Musil’s description of the visual descent over Vienna was. With regard to The Wilderness Downtown, what comes to mind is the critical potential of places that reject adaptation, places that would throw off the process of seamless identification with childhood nostalgia. We don’t have to look that far. When it comes to places in the countryside, the effects of the visual and emotional crescendo of the video clip fall flat. Roads are rare; they are linear and stretch out forever. This is assuming that Google Streetview provides them in the first place, which is not necessarily the case for a number of remote places. Viewing the downtown of a big city can yield striking results, given the abundance of visual signs. But here we are met with a diminished likelihood of the personal memories. There are not many childhood narratives wherein downtown plays the role of ground zero. There are few nostalgic archetypes to be found in the throbbing heart of a metropolis. To this we can add a second de-realizing factor: the density of constructions, the verticality of skyscrapers, the austerity of public buildings, and the dense circulation captured on Google Streetview all combine to produce a short-circuit in the languished, swooping-bird movement of the camera in the video clip. There are too many obstacles, too many irregularities in the urban landscape to allow the spectator to remain immersed in contemplation. One feels perturbed and distracted by thousands of incongruent details. More importantly, we note a third case of the inadequacy of satellite images in The Wilderness Downtown: different cultural perspectives are likely to affect the depth of the anticipated effect. The majority of European cities, for example, do not have the equivalent of the large residential parks of North-American suburbia. In the resulting video, most European towns will appear jagged leaving unclear transitions between places along with the strange coexistence of heterogeneous urban markers. Like urbanization itself, nostalgia evokes different historical embodiments depending on the cultural context that it stems from.

The Wilderness downtown allows for the formation of a civic nostalgia where the different points of the Google Earth utopia play the role that the mechanisms of memory play in biographical narration. Satellite mapping is no longer a tracking device; it aims to become an image of our memory in action. Yet, as we have just seen, there is a specific memory system at play here, one to which the spectator must subscribe if he wants to experience the emotions involved. And these emotions can be narrowed-down to those of a childhood spent in a middle-class North-American suburb. This is already suggested by the clothing of the running character in the video clip and by the central theme of the Arcade Fire album that includes this song. But the type of memory that The Wilderness Downtown requires in order to create a coherent life narrative is also subject to the imperative of visual clarity and the iconic recognition of the Google-gaze. This imperative does not tolerate blurry images and seeks to shed a uniform light on every place. It favours surface at the expense of depth, as well as the models of the network and the grid inherited from the original Google Maps interface, while avoiding obstacles that may interfere with the decoding of the visual field. This is how the structural similarities between the visual utopia of Google Earth and that of the North-American suburbs come to the forefront: both favour spaces of delineated clarity where life seems to exist only to prove that it has nothing to hide.

Witold Rybczynski, in his book Makeshift Metropolis, revisits the three North-American prewar urban utopias: City Beautiful by Charles Mumford Robinson, Garden City by Ebenezer Howard, and Radiant City by Le Corbusier.[xxx] He ultimately concludes an almost total absence of posterity to these utopias. They were the last projections of urban space to be conceived of and organized by one mind. The postwar years, according to Rybczynski, were to be dominated by a debate no longer supporting urban planning per se, but instead the comparative values of densification and sprawl. Obviously sprawl, fragmentation and subdivision of residential space have prevailed in the decades since. Nowadays, we see that this “de-densification” is no longer reduced to the physical layout of periurbanity. It has taken over the imaginary of the North-American city itself. The structures and forms of this city are the ones that permeate the Google Earth utopia. Horizontality, a far-reaching gaze, neatly defined traffic routes, places with well-labeled functions, a geography of daily life that is deprived of ambiguity: these traits are not only the ones of neoliberal productivity and urbanization, they are also what the Google Earth user expects. They are the traits that define the efficiency of the interface. The Google satellite utopia extends the paradox also mentioned by Rybczynski: only 5% of the American territory is urbanised (roads, parking spaces, agglomerations), but it is this 5% that dominates the production of cultural images and the politics of affects.[xxxi] This has a limiting function, or at least a regulative one in the process of recollection and, consequently, in the subjective life stories that depend on urban nostalgia.

In short, the interpretation and use of the Google Earth interface is compatible with the rise of an urban web that lacks aesthetic or sustainable planning and that is subdivided in accordance with real-estate speculation. Life narratives integrating the Google-gaze are influenced by this particular way of perceiving the sprawling North-American city. This is precisely the reason why a project like The Wilderness Downtown, if it wishes to produce nostalgia, must rely on a discrete new urban myth. Unlike the pulsating movement of the Baudelairian crowd, or the inhuman chaos of Musil’s city, it depends upon a fiction that thinks of urban images as quietly yet unreasonably extended in time, untouched by the destructions and reconstructions of rapid urbanization and housing speculation, or by the bipolar shifts in zoning regulations. Those whose childhood homes were demolished in favour of a strip mall (a relatively common occurrence) will experience completely different emotions while watching the video. The experience will not really work. This is why a connection has to remain between the eye of the satellite, the screen of the computer, and the mental screen on which the spectator’s memories unfold. Such permanence is incompatible with the measurement of urban time that has dominated modern thought. Modern utopia is defined as a utopia precisely insofar as it indicates a general tendency to organize and maintain the shape of a city that in reality, as Baudelaire famously remarked, “change plus vite que le cœur d’un mortel [changes faster than does the human heart].” The Google utopia, for its part, subordinates all of its features to the calculus of geolocation and to an unwavering belief in the persistence of the relation between images and reality. The Google Earth user that is able to benefit from the Arcade Fire clip does not believe in the permanence of the urban world because the satellite images are confirming it on the screen. He comes to the computer with that belief already in mind. He has always held it. The Google satellite view comprises a utopia of absolutely efficient circulation that originates in urban form and for which visibility is the cardinal value: North-American suburbia.

In conclusion, what can we say of the apparent collective utopia that the millions of Google Earth users embody? This collective utopia has a connection to the postwar North-American city, as it too was mainly defined by the middle-class. Robert Fishman stressed this in his seminal book Bourgeois Utopia: “unlike the planner’s utopia, [suburbia] was not the work of an individual genius developing his ideas in isolation. Suburbia was, rather, the collective creation of the Anglo-American middle-class.”[xxxii] Rybczynski, for better or worse, gives this a populist spin: “While planners and architects propose concepts such as the City Beautiful or garden suburbs, the public ultimately decides what it likes and dislikes. Instead of one big idea, the city is formed by many little ideas.”[xxxiii] In the middle-class city, there is no longer a Grand Architect, nor is there a single direction or aesthetic vision. Rather, there are citizen committees, lobbies, and neighbourhood associations. They keep the chaos of the modern city away in favour of a civil organization based on statistics and consensus. The global urban forms are maintained in spite of the perpetual movement that gives them life. This writing of the city performed more or less collectively and more or less democratically by the North-American middle-class has a name: zoning. It prescribes and subdivides the territory in a perfectly visible and clear manner.

Robert Musil, in his time, used the liberties provided by literature to appropriate and supersede the positivist framework of modern science. Before him, it was the sensual frenzy of crowds jammed in the narrow streets of Paris that had sparked Baudelaire’s interest and that were again explored by Walter Benjamin, who had been in turn highly influenced of Georg Simmel’s work. We have seen that the satellite mapping technology permeating our time seems to have eliminated all the creative randomness and uncertainty of poetic endeavours in favour of more concrete patterns. Yet the example of The Wilderness Downtown shows us that exploring the biographical dimension is fully possible in this context, and can even bring impressive results. There is aesthetic and technological creativity, but the narrative models conditioning the identification of the spectator and the emotional aspect of the story are limited. We have argued that this is  due to the North-American suburban rationality that governs the ideals of visibility and the conditions of reception of Google Earth with regard to life narratives involving places of former belonging. Ultimately, narrative –and by extension literary– thinking seems to be impoverished by these limitations. But there remains another possibility to be suggested. Literary thinking –that which shapes world consciousness by allowing interventions of narrative reconstruction and lived experience– may not be left behind after all. Perhaps the precision of Google’s interface diminishes the evocative power of images, yet it increases the power of the narrative imaginary in return, since the subjective position and the geographical location are reduced to a minimum: a coordinate and an image for every place. From this standpoint, everything can be redone and all the stories are possible again. Against all odds we find ourselves in the exact position of Robert Musil’s fictional apparatus. We have a machine that replicates the entire planet, but that also has the potential to reveal its critical counterpart because it is not satisfied with only representing the world, it also seeks to represent us as we are looking at the world.



Abrahamson, Mark. Global Cities. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Boutros, Alexandra and Will Straw, eds. Circulation and the City. Montreal-Toronto: McGill/Queen’s University Press, 2010.

Cassin, Barbara. Google-moi, la deuxième mission de l’Amérique. Paris: Albin Michel, 2007.

de Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Translated by Steven Rendall. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

Choay, Françoise. La règle et le modèle. Sur la théorie de l’architecture et de l’urbanisme. Paris: Seuil, 1980.

Cogez, Gérard. Les écrivains voyageurs au XXe siècle. Paris: Seuil. coll. Points, 2004.

Foucault, Michel. Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977-1978. Translated by Graham Burchell. Edited by Michel Senellart. New York: Plagrave Macmillan, 2009.

Freed, Mark M. Robert Musil and the Non-Modern. New York: Continuum, 2011.

Gordon, Eric. The Urban Spectator: American Concept-Cities from Kodak to Google. Lebanon, NH: Dartmouth College Press, 2010.

Hénaff, Marcel. La ville qui vient. Paris: L’Herne, 2008.

Huler, Scott. On the Grid: A Plot of Land, an Average Neighborhood, and the Systems That Make Our World Work. New York: Rodale, 2010.

Jameson, Fredric. Archeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fiction.  London: Verso, 2007.

—. “The Politics of Utopia.” New Left Review 25, January-February (2004): 35-54.

Jonsson, Stefan. Subject Without Nation: Robert Musil and the History of Modern Identity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2000.

Lefebvre, Henri. Writings on Cities. Translated by Eleaonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.

Musil, Robert. The Man Without Qualities. Translated by Sophie Wilkins. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995.

Paquot, Thierry. Homo urbanus. Paris: Le Félin, 1990.

Payne, Philip. Robert Musil’s “The man Without Qualities”: A Critical Study. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Ricoeur, Paul. Time and Narrative v. 2. Translated by Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.

Rybczynski, Witold. Makeshift Metropolis: Ideas About Cities. New York: Scribner, 2010.

Sassen, Saskia. The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Serres, Michel. Hermès V: Le passage du nord-ouest. Paris: Minuit, 1980.

Short, John Rennie.  Urban Theory: A Critical Assessment. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2006.

Simmel, Georg. Les grandes villes et la vie de l’esprit. Paris: L’Herne, 2007.

Soja, Edward W. Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory. London: Verso, 1989.

Vaidhyanathan, Siva. The Googlization of Everything (and Why We Should Worry). Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.

The Wilderness Downtown. A Radical Media Production. 2010. Web  2 August 2012. <http://thewildernessdowntown.com>

“Street View and The Wilderness Downtown,” Google Lat Long Blog [Electronic Resource], Accessed August 2, 2012, http://google-latlong.blogspot.ca/2010/08/street-view-and-wilderness-downtown.html

“The Wilderness Downtown’s Creator Talks About What Motivated Him, What’s Next?” Time Techland [Electronic Resouce], http://Techland.time.com, Accessed August 2, 2012, http://techland.time.com/2010/09/10/the-wilderness-downtowns-creator-talks-about-what-motivated-him-whats-next/

[ii] Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities, trans. Sophie Wilkins (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), 4.  [(Paris: Seuil. coll. Points, 1995), 11. [1930].]  “Ample pulsation rythmique, éternelle dissonance, éternel déséquilibre des rythmes.” Musil, Robert. and Philippe Jaccottet. L’homme sans qualités tome 1. Paris : Seuil. coll. Points. 1995 [1930]. p. 12. [our translation]

[iii] de Certeau, Michel de Certeau,. The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), L’invention du quotidien 1. Arts de faire. Paris : Gallimard. coll. Folio. 1990 [1980]. p. 91-110139-164.

[iv] Serres, Michel Serres,. Hermès V : Le passage du nord-ouest,. (Paris : Minuit,. 1980),. p. 36. [I translate]

[v] Philip Payne, Robert Musil’s “The man Without Qualities”: A Critical Study, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009 [1988]).  

[vi] Freed, Mark M. Freed, Robert Musil and the Non-Modern, (New York : Continuum, 2011).

[vii] Jonsson, Stefan Jonsson, Subject Without Nation : Robert Musil and the History of Modern Identity, (Durham:, Duke University Press, 2000).

[viii] Musil, Robert Musil,. and Philippe Jaccottet. The Man Without Qualities, trans. Sophie Wilkins (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), 3. L’homme sans qualités tome 1. [(Paris : Seuil. coll. Points,. 1995), 11. [1930].] p. 11.

[ix] For a summary see: John Rennie Short, Urban Theory : A Critical Assessment, (New York : Palgrave-Macmillan, 2006),  p. 19-27. See also: Marcel Hénaff, La ville qui vient, (Paris:, L’Herne, 2008), p. 9-15.

[x] See  Foucault, Michel Foucault,. Seécurityé, Tterritoryire, Ppopulation: Lectures at then. Cours au Collège de France, 1977-1978, trans. Graham Burchell, ed. Michel Senellart (New York: Plagrave Macmillan, ), 333-363.. [(Paris: Gallimard/Seuil,. coll. Hautes Études,. 2004),. p. 341-370.]

[xi] Foucault, Security, Territory,“Au sens fort des termes, policer et urbaniser c’est la même chose.” [We translate]. Ibid. p. Population, 33744.

[xii] Musil, The Man Without Qualities Robert. op. cit.

[xiii] Henri Lefebvre, Writings on Cities, trans. Eleaonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), 72. 

[xiv] Lefebvre’s insights on this matter precede Foucault’s: “Indeed, the significance of the urban fabric is not limited to its morphology. It is the support of a more or less intense, more or less degraded, ‘way of life’: urban society. […] Among the the elements of the elements of the system of values we can note […] preoccupations with security, the need to predict the future, in brief, a rationality communicated by the city” (72).  Henri L’intérêt du tissu urbain ne se limite pas à la morphologie. Il est le support d’une façon de vivre plus ou moins intense ou dégradée : la société urbaine. […] Parmi les éléments du système de valeurs, indiquons […] les préoccupations de sécurité, les exigences de prévision concernant l’avenir, bref une rationalité diffusée par la ville.”  Henri Lefebvre, Writings on Cities, trans. Eleaonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), 72.  [Le droit à la ville, Paris : Anthropos, 2009 [1970], p. 9.]. The importance of this concept was not insisted upon after that. Edward Soja, in his seminal work Postmodern Geographies, summarized its close connection to the advancement of a a modern age, in a sense that it already illustrated Musil’s writing: “[For Lefebvre] urbanization was the summative metaphor for the spatialization of modernity and the strategic planning of everyday life that has allowed capitalism to survive.”  Soja, Edward W. Soja, Postmodern Geographies : The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory,. (London : Verso, 1989), p. 50.

[xv] Paquot, Thierry Paquot,. Homo urbanus,. (Paris : Le Félin,. 1990).

[xvi] Simmel, Georg Simmel,. Les grandes villes et la vie de l’esprit,. (Paris : L’Herne,. 2007 [1900]),.  p. 17. [I translate]

[xvii] On the As an American front counterpart:, Siva Vaidhyanathan, The Googlization of Everything (and Why We Should Worry), (Berkeley : University of California Press, 2011). See also: Scott Cleland & Ira Brodsky, Search & Destroy : Why You Can’t Trust Google Inc., (St-Louis : Telescope Books, 2011). On the francophone front, see Barbara Cassin:, Google-moi, la deuxième mission de l’Amérique, (Paris : Albin Michel, 2007).

[xviii] Let it be To noted that the first illustration of this sort of globalizing point of view precedes Google Earth by about 40 years, namely the experimental short film Powers of Ten byde Charles andet Ray Eames made in 1968 and broadcasted for the general public in 1977. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0fKBhvDjuy0

[xix] Cogez, Gérard Cogez,. Les écrivains voyageurs au XXe siècle,. (Paris : Seuil. coll. Points,. 2004).,  p. 181.

[xx]  Ricoeur, Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative v. 2,. trans. Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 101.Temps et récit 2. [(Paris : Seuil. coll. Points,. 1984), . p. 192].

[xxi] Jameson, Fredric Jameson, Archeologies of the Future : The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fiction, (London : Verso, 2007). See also: Jameson, Fredric Jameson, « The Politics of Utopia », New Left Review 25, January-February (2004): , p. 35-54.

[xxii] Françoise Choay, La règle et le modèle. Sur la théorie de l’architecture et de l’urbanisme, (Paris : Seuil, 1980), p. 190.

[xxiii] Sassen, Saskia Sassen, The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo, (Princeton: , Princeton University Press, 2001). [1991]. See also: Abrahamson, Mark Abrahamson, Global Cities, (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2004).

[xxiv] See: Huler, Scott Huler,. On the Grid : A Plot of Land, an Average Neighborhood, and the Systems That Make Our World Work,. (New York : Rodale, 2010).,  p. 22-24.  

[xxv] Alexandra Boutros & Will Straw remind us of the deep ties between urban life and the circulation that has come to define its geographical reality when they ask : « How can the contemporary city be defined and understood in the face of a fluidity and mobility that always link it to places, both littéral and conceptual, outside of itself ? » Boutros, Alexandra Boutros and  Will Straw (eds.), Circulation and the City, (Montreal-Toronto : McGill/Queen’s University Press, 2010), p. 10.

[xxvi] The Wilderness Downtown,. A Radical Media Production,. 2010,. Accessed Web  2 August 2, 2012. <http://thewildernessdowntown.com>

[xxvii] The Wilderness Downtown. Ibid.

[xxviii] “Street View and The Wilderness Downtown,.Google Lat Long Blog [Electronic Resource],. Accessed google-latlong.blogspot.ca. Web 2 August 2, 2012,. < http://google-latlong.blogspot.ca/2010/08/street-view-and-wilderness-downtown.html>

[xxix] “The Wilderness Downtown’s Creator Talks About What Motivated Him, What’s Next?”. Time Techland [Electronic Resouce],. http://Techland.time.com,. AccessedWeb 2 August 2, 2012,.  <http://techland.time.com/2010/09/10/the-wilderness-downtowns-creator-talks-about-what-motivated-him-whats-next/>

[xxx] Rybczynski, Witold Rybczynski,. Makeshift Metropolis:. Ideas About Cities,. (New York : Scribner,. 2010),.  p. 9-50. See also: Gordon, Eric Gordon, The Urban Spectator: American Concept-Cities from Kodak to Google, (Lebanon, NH: Dartmouth College Press, 2010).

[xxxi] Rybczynski, Makeshift MetropolisIbid. p. 178: “The number of Americans who actually live downtown is only 0.3 percent of the entire population. (p. 178).

[xxxii] Robert Fishman, Bourgeois Utopia. The Rise and Fall of Suburbia, (New York: Basic Books, 1987), preface, x.

[xxxiii] Rybczynski, Makeshift Metropolis, 91.Rybczynski, Witold, op. cit., p. 91.