Can Google Earth be beneficial?

Being an individual culturally linked to South Asia I am going to be completely transparent and say that I most definitely have a favored bias with a particular reading that was assigned to us this week. The reading in question is Mayukh Sen’s “Dividing Lines”- an analytical take on how the Hollywood produced movie “Lion” glorifies the use of Google Earth to tell the story of how an Indian boy who accidentally gets separated from his family when he was young, uses the tool to help find his way back home and reunite him with his loved ones. Although the movie is based upon true events in “Dividing Lines” Sen critiques the film on how it handles the almost seamless relationship between man and technology. In his own words he describes the use of Google Earth in the movie as a “one-way transaction between an error-prone, sleepless human and an intelligent device, rather than as a human’s struggle to overcome a potentially useful technology’s limitations and biases”.

Sen backs his statement by mentioning Saroo Brierley’s (movie was based on him) memoir “A Long Way Home” where he describes the arduous process he had to endure to meet his end goal. This is in contrast to the movie where his plight is only seen as a small added factor. In addition to this Sen also details his own use of Google Earth where he experiments in finding the village his mother was born and raised in. The experiment proved fruitless as external factors undeniably came in the way. For one Sen’s mother did not know the anglicized spelling and the exact address of the location. The main thing Sen had to work with were visual cues drawn from distant memory. We find out that this didn’t even end up serving a purpose as hazy and unclear images resulted in their search. It is clear that faults of the user of the application are a definite component in a failed search. However Sen does not shy away in lamenting that past Colonial rule and interference are key factors in addressing the inconsistencies that those part of the South Asian diaspora face when trying to investigate the past.

With that in mind I decided to use Google Earth for my own experimental purposes and decided to try the same method in attempting to find the area my father grew up in in Bangladesh. As a disclaimer I would like to inform everyone that this is my first time using the application so a lot of the time used in this process was me trying to figure out how to use it properly. Once I got the basics down I typed in the neighborhood’s name and to my surprise it confirmed an actual result. I didn’t know the address of my father’s childhood home so finding the exact house was near impossible. However through the images that were provided to me I most definitely recognized some of the architecture and can confirm that I was in the correct general area. This exercise has without a doubt peaked my interest and I’m curious as to how much of a deep dive I can perform once I have more information from my father. Perhaps then I can formulate an potential idea for a final project. My father moved around quite a bit during the Bangladesh War of Liberation against Pakistan. With his help in tow along with the inspiration I have gained into looking at other cultural specific maps that have been designed , I was possibly thinking of creating a map pinpointing areas that he lived in. To expand on this I also want to add in places he frequented while living in these areas. Given Sen’s criticism of the application along with critiques of maps in general that I learned from the other readings we had this week I expect to encounter issues along the way. With that being said I believe a task to this degree can still be beneficial. Not only will it help me discover more aspects of my father’s life but it will also help me discern the realities of my cultural past through a non euro-centric lens.

1 thought on “Can Google Earth be beneficial?

  1. Matt Rubin

    I’ve been thinking about Google Earth and similar services as of late, simply because of their sheer untapped utility. Being able to get images and visuals of places on Earth far beyond where you can travel on short notice is a big deal, and it can be a tremendously useful tool for many tasks and in many lines of work, both inside and outside the realm of digital humanities. Screenshots from such services can be used to augment anything from data and statistics, to one’s geographical research, to even artistic compositions.

    However, as a strong proponent of universal access to privacy, I also wonder if services like that do more harm than good. While it’s technically somewhat removed from Google Earth, Google’s street view service unnerves me due to the sheer level of detail it offers. The fact that Google already handles our data in dubious ways further makes me worry about what the future may hold for services such as those.

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