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Inverting the Panopticon: Google Earth, Wonder and Earthly Delights

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Abstract

This essay considers the user experience of Google Earth, comparing the world it presents with other world views including static print maps, medieval mappaemundi, and Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. It also considers the scopic environment of Google Earth in relation to Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, a theoretical prison design intended to provide a single guard the ability to view every inmate while remaining unobserved. The Google Earth interface generates wonder and geographic longing, but also empowers the user by granting new and flexible controls that differ from those available to users of print and manuscript maps. Ultimately, Google Earth is not an application that provides great utility, as traditionally defined – it does not help us navigate the physical world. Instead, it does something much more powerful: it gives us a new way to contemplate the world in which we live.

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