Postcard — May 8, 2014, 8:00 am

Grand Plan

Why has Google added the Grand Canyon to Street View?

Screen capture from Google’s Street View Grand Canyon

Screen capture from Google’s Street View Grand Canyon

“That’s another thing we’ve learned from your Nation,” said Mein Herr, “map-making. But we’ve carried it much further than you. What do you consider the largest map that would be really useful?”

“About six inches to the mile.”

“Only six inches!” exclaimed Mein Herr. “We very soon got to six yards to the mile. Then we tried a hundred yards to the mile. And then came the grandest idea of all! We actually made a map of the country, on the scale of a mile to the mile!”

“Have you used it much?” I enquired.

“It has never been spread out, yet,” said Mein Herr: “the farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight! So we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.”

—Lewis Carroll, Sylvie and Bruno

In March, Google released its latest digital creation, a river-level view of the entire Grand Canyon — all 286 miles of it, from Lee’s Ferry on the canyon’s northern end to Pearce Ferry on its southern. The company’s programmers compiled some 57,000 360-degree panoramic images shot by a raft-mounted camera to create the virtual trip. Additionally, hikers wearing Google-built “Trekker” backpacks captured panoramas of several inner-canyon trails. The Street View Grand Canyon is an offshoot of the company’s well-known Street View feature, which millions have used to rove suburban cul-de-sacs or back roads of exotic cities.

Screen capture from Google’s Street View Grand CanyonGoogle says it embarked on the Grand Canyon project with conservation in mind, in partnership with the environmental group American Rivers, which in 2013 declared the Colorado the country’s “most endangered” river. The hope, according to a Google release, is that those who take the virtual journey will become engaged in protecting the real waterway.1

1 Mind you, a tour of the Colorado as it passes through the Grand Canyon — where it is has the benefit of being designated a national park — might be less effective in helping to raise awareness than showing, say, the iridescent uranium tailings ponds along the Colorado’s banks near Moab, Utah, or the stretches of the Green River, a tributary of the Colorado, that pass through the Uintah Basin’s great gas fields.

The project interested me because in 2011, I received a grant from Stanford University’s Bill Lane Center for the American West to build an interactive digital map of the Grand Canyon — albeit one far less technologically ambitious than Google’s. The grant came after years of compulsively studying and tracking a forgotten artist, cartographer, and explorer named Friedrich W. von Egloffstein, who made the first map of the canyon.

The Bavarian-born Egloffstein traveled along the 38th Parallel with John C. Frémont’s fifth expedition in 1853–1854, then with Joseph Christmas Ives’s Grand Canyon expedition of 1857–1858. The map I eventually made of the canyon, working with Lane Center multimedia specialist Geoff McGhee, was a digital recreation of two of Egloffstein’s exquisite shaded relief maps; it appeared on Harpers.org as a supplement to my magazine feature “The Long Draw.”

Egloffstein would, I think, have approved of Google’s latest effort. Toiling in extreme secrecy, he invented and patented a host of technologies to produce his maps, including several processes that allowed photographic images to be transferred to paper. His ultimate goal was to combine overhead map projections with panoramic images of the landscape. The historian J. B. Krygier describes the effort this way: “[T]he specific locations of the panoramas are noted on the expedition’s maps, and one can plot the planimetric extent of the panoramas by calculating the bearings from the point located on the map. . . . This feature ties the panoramas to the map, and the map to the panoramas.” In other words, Egloffstein was creating the nineteenth-century equivalent of Street View.

I was dazzled the first time McGhee and I saw the virtual landforms of Google Earth poking up from under the antique map like a tablecloth draped over an Old West train set. Overlaying old charts on Google’s mosaic of the modern West felt almost subversive, like a rejection of modernity itself. We built the map so that you could strobe instantly between past and present or crossfade one map with the other, transforming the blank spaces of the unexplored canyon into the jumble of roads, hotels, and gift shops strewn along the Grand Canyon’s rim today.

But if our Egloffstein overlays allowed for nostalgic dips into the nineteenth century, Google Earth’s Grand Canyon reveals the advantages of modernity, permitting instant travel across miles of fractured terrain, thereby nullifying time and distance, the very factors that vexed early expeditions as they searched for transcontinental-railroad and military routes — the roads by which the American West was conquered.

Screen capture from Google’s Street View Grand Canyon

Google’s declared mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” a statement that casts the planet as a vast and undifferentiated stream of data, awaiting processors and algorithms powerful enough to transform and order it for human use. And so, in the spirit of the mile-to-mile scale map of Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno, the company has captured the canyon with tremendous accuracy, allowing anyone with a computer and a decent Internet connection to “cover the whole country.”

To better understand how — and more importantly, why — this capturing has been carried out, I arranged a meeting with Karin Tuxen-Bettman, a “geo data strategist” and the project lead for Google’s Grand Canyon mapping effort. Before setting out from my home in the East Bay, I typed my destination into my smartphone. Then I somnambulantly followed its commands southward, across Dumbarton Bridge and into the labyrinth of identical office buildings that comprises Google’s sprawling Mountain View complex.

After I’d parked and wandered aimlessly for a few minutes, Google spokesperson Susan Cadrecha called out my name from across the lot.

“I’m usually pretty good with maps,” I said sheepishly.

“It’s okay,” she replied. “Everything sort of looks the same around here.”

We passed through a silent office building — one of several belonging to Google’s mapping division, the company’s largest single branch — and into a courtyard of picnic benches topped with umbrellas in the company’s blue, green, red, and yellow logo colors. There we met with Tuxen-Bettman. The wind was brisk, and she brushed her brown hair from her glasses as she spoke. As a teenager, she told me, she’d taken a raft trip through the Grand Canyon, from Phantom Ranch to Whitmore Ranch, which influenced her decision to earn a Ph.D. in environmental science.

Screen capture from Google’s Street View Grand CanyonShe said she’d read up on Egloffstein the night before, and we enthusiastically discussed the perils of the early expeditions — the capsizings, the weather, the threat of violence from local tribes. When I asked her whether Google’s expedition had encountered many challenges, she thought for a moment and responded with what seemed like slight disappointment. “No,” she said, “there really wasn’t.”

So successful was Google’s eight-day expedition, in fact, that not only was no gear lost, but no data went missing. “It was all there,” she said, “an unbroken stream of images.”

As complete as the canyon’s terrain appears through the digital looking glass, however, Street View Grand Canyon feels conspicuously inadequate in critical ways. On the virtual river you can fast-forward downstream, avoiding the soaking rapids and searing sun, putting in and taking out as you please. But part of the Grand Canyon experience is surrendering to the flow of the river and committing to the journey. Anyone who has traveled in canyon country knows how much the terrain can change in a matter of seconds during an afternoon rainstorm, or in the hours between noon and dusk, as sunlight glistens and fades upon the canyon walls. To these subtle but vital gradations, Google’s roving digital eye remains conspicuously blind.

I’d heard these shortcomings voiced by proud river runners and backpackers, often delivered with mild condescension (“I guess I can cancel my rafting permit for this summer”) or outright indignation (“Is nothing sacred?”). Jonathan Thompson, an editor at High Country News, invoked the cantankerous author Edward Abbey, who in the 1970s wrote, “The utopian technologists foresee a future for us in which distance is annihilated and anyone can transport himself anywhere, instantly. . . . To be everywhere at once is to be nowhere forever, if you ask me. That’s God’s job, not ours.” Tuxen-Bettman made a similar concession, pointing out that the map and its imagery were no substitute for the canyon itself. “It reflects what’s there at one moment of time,” she said, “but it does not replace it.”

Despite its gaps, Google’s digital map is seductive. The interface is elegant and intuitive, and the panoramas on view are captured dispassionately, seemingly immune to the emotional coloring and exaggeration for which the first artists of the canyon, including Egloffstein, have been criticized. But the Street View cam, like all cameras, produces its own kind of distortion. Its wide-angle lenses warp and contort the vertical walls, leaving the viewer with little sense of the canyon’s true proportions. Early expeditionary artists often foregrounded their drawings with human figures in order to convey the vastness of the surrounding landscapes; in his Ives Report images, Egloffstein commonly used a steamship for this purpose.

Screen capture from Google’s Street View Grand Canyon

Those steamships also served to illustrate the forward momentum of the expedition, reinforcing the image of civilization’s march into the uncharted wilderness of the American West. By contrast, nearly all evidence of the human labor involved in Google’s mapping expedition has been wiped away. Faces of rafters and hikers have been blurred for privacy reasons, and the company’s raft has been digitally smeared out into the roiling brown current. “We wanted this to be about the place,” said Tuxen-Bettman, “and not about Google.”2

2 A few traces do remain — places where Google’s automated software has failed to digitally blot out the expedition’s footprints. The occasional shadow of a two-headed hiker saddled with the Trekker sometimes appears on the trail, and some river frames show the hazy edges of the raft or the disembodied heads of rafters, a few of whom can be seen knocking back cans of beer.

As she spoke, I began to wonder about Google’s motives. Much of the angst around the advance of Street View seemed to be implicitly tied to the steady worming of Google’s tentacles into our private lives. Having absorbed search histories and other markers of online behavior, to what use might the company put virtual interactions with wildest nature? If, as Tuxen-Bettman insisted, the Grand Canyon project wasn’t about the company — and wasn’t meant to be a high-fidelity representation of the real thing — then why bother in the first place? Was the pursuit of technological novelty just a fringe benefit of working for a company whose 2013 revenues totaled more than $50 billion?

A Trekker backpack leaned against the bench beside us. I hadn’t been able to keep my eyes off it. A sphere jutted from the top of the metal frame, covered with fifteen lenses capable of photographing the landscape in all directions simultaneously.

“Do you want to put it on?” Tuxen-Bettman asked.

“Can I?”

“Of course,” she said, helping me hoist the forty-pound pack onto my back. The apparatus was entirely rigid, making it feel much lighter than the packs of similar weight that I’d often carried into the backcountry. When Tuxen-Bettman let go, however, the high-perched camera caused me to jerk backward a little. I cinched the belt and tightened the shoulder straps. Instantly, the device’s center of gravity shifted and it seemed to meld to my body.

Coincidentally, that morning Google had announced a limited one-day release of a number of its face-worn Google Glass computers. Two weeks later, the Federal Trade Commission would approve Facebook’s $2 billion acquisition of Oculus, the developer of a virtual-reality headset called Rift. The two announcements raised the question of whether Google’s effort to capture the world’s landforms was laying groundwork for such technologies. Someday soon, might we see this kind of imagery streamed through a fully immersive headset — a device capable of fooling the senses and delivering a high-definition map of Carrollesque proportions directly to our optic nerves?3

3 The answers to those questions, it seems, will have to wait.  My follow-up questions to Cadrecha were met with emails that read, “We have no plans to announce at this time.”

Cadrecha told me Google was embarking on a program to loan the Trekker out to private citizens, allowing them to capture a virtual journey to their favorite secret places. The record of those journeys would of course be available for public consumption in Google’s ever-growing Street View archives. “You might think about joining us,” she said.

With Google’s digital eye jutting like a second head from my upper back, I contemplated where I might take the Trekker — to a high, unnamed slab in the Wind River Mountains, perhaps, or a slot canyon on the Colorado Plateau, or into the dark maw of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River itself. But then I recoiled at the thought, and not just because I selfishly wanted these places to remain untrammeled – terra incognita in the public consciousness.

Soon enough, the company would have a camera capable of absorbing every inch of the planet’s most inaccessible landscapes into its databases. But not yet. I pictured the Trekker’s protruding eye striking a low overhang on a high peak or in a deep canyon. Would it be decapitated from the frame? Or would it stay affixed, catapulting me backward over some ragged precipice? The device would pound against bare rock, plunge into murky water, rake against ice. Its GPS sensors would starve for a signal and its fifteen eyes would scuff and crack, eventually growing sightless as they succumbed to water, sand, wind.

I smiled at the thought as I unhooked the waist belt.

“Yeah,” I said. “That would be fun.”

Share
Single Page
writes from Richmond, California. His last story for Harper’s Magazine, “The Long Draw,” appeared in the January 2012 issue.

More from Jeremy Miller:

From the January 2017 issue

Bounty Hunters

A clandestine war on wolves

Postcard May 29, 2015, 10:30 am

Wave Goodbye

Following John Muir’s footsteps through California’s high country. 

From the January 2012 issue

The Long Draw

On the trail of an artistic mystery in the American West

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2020

Trumpism After Trump

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“My Gang Is Jesus”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Cancer Chair

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Birds

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Skinning Tree

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Interpretation of Dreams

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Dearest Lizzie

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Trumpism After Trump·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The city was not beautiful; no one made that claim for it. At the height of summer, people in suits, shellacked by the sun, moved like harassed insects to avoid the concentrated light. There was a civil war–like fracture in America—the president had said so—but little of it showed in the capital. Everyone was polite and smooth in their exchanges. The corridor between Dupont Circle and Georgetown was like the dream of Yugoslav planners: long blocks of uniform earth-toned buildings that made the classical edifices of the Hill seem the residue of ancestors straining for pedigree. Bunting, starched and perfectly ruffled in red-white-and-blue fans, hung everywhere—from air conditioners, from gutters, from statues of dead revolutionaries. Coming from Berlin, where the manual laborers are white, I felt as though I was entering the heart of a caste civilization. Untouchables in hard hats drilled into sidewalks, carried pylons, and ate lunch from metal boxes, while waiters in restaurants complimented old respectable bobbing heads on how well they were progressing with their rib eyes and iceberg wedges.

I had come to Washington to witness either the birth of an ideology or what may turn out to be the passing of a kidney stone through the Republican Party. There was a new movement afoot: National Conservatives, they called themselves, and they were gathering here, at the Ritz-Carlton, at 22nd Street and M. Disparate tribes had posted up for the potlatch: reformacons, blood-and-soilers, curious liberal nationalists, “Austrians,” repentant neocons, evangelical Christians, corporate raiders, cattle ranchers, Silicon Valley dissidents, Buckleyites, Straussians, Orthodox Jews, Catholics, Mormons, Tories, dark-web spiders, tradcons, Lone Conservatives, Fed-Socs, Young Republicans, Reaganites in amber. Most straddled more than one category.

Article
The Cancer Chair·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The second-worst thing about cancer chairs is that they are attached to televisions. Someone somewhere is always at war with silence. It’s impossible to read, so I answer email, or watch some cop drama on my computer, or, if it seems unavoidable, explore the lives of my nurses. A trip to Cozumel with old girlfriends, a costume party with political overtones, an advanced degree on the internet: they’re all the same, these lives, which is to say that the nurses tell me nothing, perhaps because amid the din and pain it’s impossible to say anything of substance, or perhaps because they know that nothing is precisely what we both expect. It’s the very currency of the place. Perhaps they are being excruciatingly candid.

There is a cancer camaraderie I’ve never felt. That I find inimical, in fact. Along with the official optimism that percolates out of pamphlets, the milestone celebrations that seem aimed at children, the lemonade people squeeze out of their tumors. My stoniness has not always served me well. Among the cancer staff, there is special affection for the jocular sufferer, the one who makes light of lousy bowel movements and extols the spiritual tonic of neuropathy. And why not? Spend your waking life in hell, and you too might cherish the soul who’d learned to praise the flames. I can’t do it. I’m not chipper by nature, and just hearing the word cancer makes me feel like I’m wearing a welder’s mask.

Article
“My Gang Is Jesus”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

When Demétrio Martins was ready to preach, he pushed a joystick that angled the seat of his wheelchair forward, slowly lifting him to a standing position. Restraints held his body upright. His atrophied right arm lay on an armrest, and with his left hand, he put a microphone to his lips. “Proverbs, chapter fourteen, verse twelve,” he said. “ ‘There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is . . .’ ”

The congregation finished: “ ‘Death.’ ”

The Assembly of God True Grapevine was little more than a fluorescent-lit room wedged between a bar and an empty lot in Jacaré, a poor neighborhood on Rio de Janeiro’s north side. A few dozen people sat in the rows of plastic lawn chairs that served as pews, while shuddering wall fans circulated hot air. The congregation was largely female; of the few men in attendance, most wore collared shirts and old leather shoes. Now and then, Martins veered from Portuguese into celestial tongues. People rose from their seats, thrust their hands into the air, and shouted, “Hallelujah!”

Article
The Birds·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On December 7, 2016, a drone departed from an Amazon warehouse in the United Kingdom, ascended to an altitude of four hundred feet, and flew to a nearby farm. There it glided down to the front lawn and released from its clutches a small box containing an Amazon streaming device and a bag of popcorn. This was the first successful flight of Prime Air, Amazon’s drone delivery program. If instituted as a regular service, it would slash the costs of “last-mile delivery,” the shortest and most expensive leg of a package’s journey from warehouse to doorstep. Drones don’t get into fender benders, don’t hit rush-hour traffic, and don’t need humans to accompany them, all of which, Amazon says, could enable it to offer thirty-minute delivery for up to 90 percent of domestic shipments while also reducing carbon emissions. After years of testing, Amazon wrote to the Federal Aviation Administration last summer to ask for permission to conduct limited commercial deliveries with its drones, attaching this diagram to show how the system would work. (Amazon insisted that we note that the diagram is not to scale.) Amazon is not the only company working toward such an automated future—­UPS, FedEx, Uber, and Google’s parent company, Alphabet, have similar programs—­but its plans offer the most detailed vision of what seems to be an impending reality, one in which parce­l-toting drones are a constant presence in the sky, doing much more than just delivering popcorn.

Article
The Skinning Tree·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Every year in Lusk, Wyoming, during the second week of July, locals gather to reenact a day in 1849 when members of a nearby band of Sioux are said to have skinned a white man alive. None of the actors are Native American. The white participants dress up like Indians and redden their skin with body paint made from iron ore.

The town prepares all year, and the performance, The Legend of Rawhide, has a cast and crew of hundreds, almost all local volunteers, including elementary school children. There are six generations of Rawhide actors in one family; three or four generations seems to be the average. The show is performed twice, on Friday and Saturday night.

The plot is based on an event that, as local legend has it, occurred fifteen miles south of Lusk, in Rawhide Buttes. It goes like this: Clyde Pickett is traveling with a wagon train to California. He tells the other Pioneers: “The only good Injun’s a dead Injun.” Clyde loves Kate Farley, and to impress her, he shoots the first Indian he sees, who happens to be an Indian Princess. The Indians approach the Pioneers and ask that the murderer give himself up. Clyde won’t admit he did it. The Indians attack the wagon train and, eventually, Clyde surrenders. The Indians tie Clyde to the Skinning Tree and flay him alive. Later, Kate retrieves her dead lover’s body and the wagon train continues west.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

A decorated veteran of the American wars in Vietnam and Iraq had his prosthetic limbs repossessed from his home in Mississippi when the VA declined to pay for them.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Jesus Plus Nothing

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

Subscribe Today