[ISEA2009] Paper: Kathy Marmor – Bird watching: satellites, telescopes and the metaphor of transparency


Remote sensing is the act of measuring and observing an object from a distance without any physical contact. Interestingly, the term ‘remote sensing’ was coined by Evelyn Pruitt, a geographer for the Office of Naval Research at the start of the Cold War. This paper argues that remote sensing space satellites represent a contemporary interweaving of vision, knowledge and power and as optical devices have, like the telescope in the 17th century, changed how we think and engage with the world.

Space satellites provide a uniquely modern perspective of the earth in that they, as Hanna Arendt wrote in The Human Condition1 were, ‘the first step towards escape from men’s imprisonment to the earth.’ Satellites liberate us by allowing us to see ourselves from space while their instruments provide new insight into our global environment. Space satellites like telescopes extend human sight to make the imperceptible perceivable. Expanding vision beyond the eye’s capability allows for greater scrutiny. Even though phenomena observed through a satellite or telescope constitutes a perceived reality, these observations must still be discerned as true.

Verifying what is seen is entrenched in a scientific methodology created in part during the 17th century. This paper will illuminate how the principles of objectivity in scientific practice and metaphors of transparency have changed in relation to the development of new optical devices and digital imaging methodologies in the 21st century. This historical analysis of the telescope in the 17th century and the space satellite of the 20th century show how knowledge acquired through technologically enhanced vision has shifted both scientific and social paradigms that in turn profoundly influence cultural norms.

  • Kathy Marmor University of Vermont, USA

Full text (PDF)  p. 433-439