Canadian Journal of Communication Vol 38 (2013) 277-284
©2013 Canadian Journal of Communication Corporation 

Guest Editorial

Earth-Observing Media

Chris Russill

Carleton University 

Chris Russill is Associate Professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University, 4301 River Building, 1125 Colonel By Drive, Ottawa, ON  K1S 5B6. Email: .


“Why haven’t we seen the whole Earth-observing system yet?”

Figure 1: Brand’s whole Earth button

 Figure-1: Whole-Earth-button

Source: Brand, 1977

One day in 1966, at the height of his fame, Marshall McLuhan was asked, “Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?” Stewart Brand, a Northern California hippie, had printed the question on pin-back buttons and sent one to McLuhan as part of a quirky liberation campaign (see Figure 1). Brand’s goal was not the emancipation of a people or a territory. He sought only to liberate a single photograph from the bureaucratic confines of NASA.

The campaign originated in an acid-induced vision Brand had on a rooftop in San Francisco (Brand, 1977). In staring down at the city’s buildings, Brand could see the landscape curving beneath them. Or so he hallucinated (those without the benefit of LSD will have little success). Brand projected his vantage point higher and higher into the atmosphere, and the Earth’s curvature became more and more pronounced, until it yielded a perception of a “whole Earth” suspended in outer space. If only people could see the Earth in this way, Brand thought, popular misconceptions would dissolve, the mistreatment of nature would end, and global consciousness of ecological interdependency would ensue. A single photograph, once liberated for the masses, could distribute a perception hitherto limited to astronauts and acidheads. An environmental movement, Brand prophesied, would emerge from the shift in consciousness this perception would entail.

Brand’s tweet-length message was sold on the campuses of elite U.S. universities in a spectacle-generating way, and mailed to celebrities, politicians, and a list of NASA officials, among others. Brand was aided by Lois Jennings, his soon-to-be wife from Ottawa, and they busied themselves conducting “street-clown seminars on space and civilization” (Brand, 1977, p. 169). Fresh off a stint as wheelman for the Merry Pranksters, Brand’s “whole Earth” campaign (or at least its retelling) embodied perfectly the Pranksters’ ideal of drug-induced spontaneity colliding with the institutions of conformity. Brand obtained his picture within months. In fact, a torrent of images soon followed, including The Blue Marble, a photograph often described as the most widely disseminated image in history (Poole, 2008). The torrent of earthly imagery has not ceased since.

Brand had his photograph—and arguably his hoped-for movement—but not McLuhan’s answer.

What would McLuhan say?

McLuhan (1964) did not answer Brand directly, yet his work is hardly silent on such questions. There are the obvious replies found in Understanding Media: “the medium is the message” as well as frequent references to the Narcissus myth, and we can imagine Brand or Carl Sagan or Al Gore playing the part of Echo. The most relevant remarks involve the launch of Sputnik. For McLuhan, this meant we were dealing with “perhaps the largest conceivable revolution in information,” as space-borne media had “created a new environment for the planet” (McLuhan, 1974, p. 49). “Nature” would no longer exist as a condition or horizon for consciousness, but would become its content, as “ecology” (McLuhan, 1974). Our ways of knowing and shaping environments, hitherto limited to local, national, or regional territories, would now apply to the “global scale.” Pace Brand, perhaps we should ask, “Why haven’t we seen the whole Earth-observing system yet?”

Whereas Brand asked people to reorganize their consciousness around an iconic image, McLuhan understood technological media as shaping the range of possibilities for environmental consciousness. For Brand, “the global” was a matter of vantage point. A human situated in space could acquire the correct perception of the Earth, and this was experienced as an epiphany reorganizing consciousness. For McLuhan, “the global” was a media artifact and constituted technologically. Already, in the 1950s, McLuhan held this position: “Technological art takes the whole earth and its population as its material, not as its form” (cited in Cavell, 2003, p. 203). A focus on a single photograph, or the ceaseless flow of earthly visualizations that followed Brand’s prized image, only obscures how the “global scale” is an infrastructural accomplishment, an artifact of a technological system, and not the result of an epiphany or a paradigm shift rooted in consciousness. If we juxtapose the politics of consciousness that imbues Brand’s global environmentalism with the media infrastructure approach inspired by Innis and McLuhan, among others, we begin to register how thoroughly deprived ecological politics is of discourses describing material understandings of the relationship between media and power.

Brand’s campaign is best understood in its fuller context. The truth is, Brand did not hallucinate a “whole Earth” perception into existence. Trained as a photographer by the military, Brand’s perception of the Earth’s curvature was aided as much by his trained eye and existing imagery as by LSD. Photographs of the Earth from space had existed for almost 20 years before Brand’s liberation effort, and while their existence was hardly a state secret, it was rocket science. The semiotic resources informing Brand’s personal vision came courtesy of the A4 (V-2) missile booty taken from Peenemünde, Germany. Nazi rockets were outfitted with cameras, shot into space, crashed into a New Mexico desert, and recovered to produce the first space-based photographs of the Earth’s curvature. These images, of course, required the advanced geophysical understanding of atmospheric dynamics implied by launching, guiding, and tracking missiles.

Yet before Brand, and before camera-laden missiles, there were photographers in submarines attached to balloons. Albert Stephens, a U.S. Army Signal Corps specialist in aerial optics, brokered a deal between the U.S. Army Air Corps and National Geographic to underwrite a balloon ascent to the stratosphere and produced an image of the Earth’s curvature in 1936 (DeVorkin, 1989). The expedition was part geophysical experiment, part training for high-altitude spying, and all media event. Images of the Earth’s curvature, as well as Stephens’ own accounts, circulated widely in National Geographic and were broadcast in real time over radio by NBC from the Stratobowl launch site in South Dakota (the original Cape Canaveral, if you will). The stratosphere was to the 1930s what the moon was to the 1960s. It was a newly discovered environment for human exploration, scientific experimentation, industrial transformation, and military strategy, not unlike early-twentieth-century interventions into deep oceanic spaces (see Starosielski, 2013).

The horizontal required the vertical. Photographing the Earth’s curved horizon required that vertically stratified environments be discovered, understood, and made habitable. Surviving the stratosphere was not unlike surviving the ocean’s depth; the first high-altitude balloon gondolas making the upper atmosphere survivable were derived from German submarines (and, in turn, served as precursors for space capsules). World war was now truly possible, as the thin horizontal band of terrestrial and ocean surface conflict expanded fully into the vertical dimension.

The point is that the media emphasized in the cultural politics of environmental issues are routinely displayed or described in ways that elide how their infrastructural requirements reflect the strategic exigencies of military, intelligence, and security agencies. The first interest in environmental science as such, the discovery of the upper atmosphere and ocean’s depth as unique material environments, and twentieth-century concern with climate change all derive from the operational interests of military actors, all utilize networks and technologies of military origin, and these continue to sit in uncomfortable relationship with the ecological- and biological-based forms of popular environmentalist sensibilities (see Berland, 2009; Doel, 2003; Packer, 2013; Russill, 2012).

How should we think about the relationship between environment and media in this context? What models of media analysis can we draw upon? How do the fields of signals criss-crossing the Earth both constitute our sources of environmental observation and reflect the logistical requirements of data-processing infrastructures embedded firmly in industrial and military networks?

Brand’s campaign embedded new images of the Earth in popular culture. In the early age of space travel, the Earth was depicted as a rock, as a prison, or at best as a cradle that humanity had outgrown. As Hannah Arendt (1958) observed of Sputnik, this extraordinary technological achievement, “second in importance to no other,” brought to the surface an equally extraordinary cultural idea, “the earth as a prison for men’s bodies” (pp. 1–2). The “artificial” environments in which humanity had hitherto dwelled all still had Earth as a condition of existence; yet the launch of Sputnik and the era of space travel initiated what Robert Poole (2008) has called “a long-range project of cultural engineering” (pp. 3–5), one organized in terms of the idea that human evolution had its destiny in space travel.

News columns, books, and films proliferated in the 1960s to prepare people for the images of Earth and space that would soon result. A notable example is Universe (Kroitor & Lowe, 1960), a production of Canada’s National Film Board, which offered filmic effects and an interpretive schema for picturing the Earth’s environment in space. Today, it is remembered primarily as an inspiration for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1964), which poached some effects, some technical expertise, and the narrator of Universe, Douglas Rain, better known as the voice of HAL 9000. Yet the documentary remains illustrative of the cultural work done to integrate public perceptions into an emerging infrastructure. NASA stockpiled copies of the film (Poole, 2008).

Brand sought to change how the Earth was depicted in such materials while enthusiastically supporting further development of Earth-observing systems. The Earth was not a geophysical rock but an ecological system—not dead, but alive—and ecology could displace geophysics with respect to how we conceive and know global environments, even if the observing systems had been designed to encourage geophysical conceptions of the planet. Brand’s campaign set out to free consciousness from a geophysical hegemony dominating how the Earth was understood. By changing the image, and by shifting consciousness, alternative social arrangements would spring forth.

The curious point is Brand’s focus on photography. Before the famous whole-Earth photograph, and since then, images from space had been electronically transmitted and processed (see Poole, 2008). The photograph prioritized by Brand was an anomaly. It was also the wrong medium for understanding what McLuhan thought was the most significant point, namely, that the planet was encircled by a “worldwide web of electronic signals” (see Turner, 2006, p. 54). Indeed, only this piece of mechanically reproduced media could miss the key element—electronic signal processing—that had reconfigured the relationship of media and environment. This changed relationship explains why McLuhan turned to cybernetics for inspiration (Turner, 2006), and why Arendt (1958) focused attention on the way mathematical processing confounded how we make sense of the world. As Parks (2005) makes clear, the resulting media are “only an approximation of an event, not a mechanical reproduction of it or a live immersion in it” (p. 91). Years later, Brand still had difficulty coping with the displacement of photography by the advanced signal-processing techniques underlying Earth-observing media (see Brand, Kelly, & Kinney, 1985).

The other significant problem with Brand’s campaign narrative is his “dual use” conception of media technology. “Dual use” is an industrial policy that acknowledges the formative influence of military design and funding on technology (radar, sonar, automated computation, satellites, etc.), while suggesting that civilian and peaceful applications are just as likely as not. Global positioning systems, for example, are often discussed in this manner. In their important book on satellites, Parks and Schwoch (2012) illustrate how “dual use” is a recurrent attempt to paper over the “conceptual cleavage” animating many sites of Earth-observing, as questions regarding the industrial and military control of infrastructure fade conveniently from view. If technology can serve military, commercial, and civilian ends, then what matters is the use, not the technical qualities, institutional expertise, or material circumstances in which technology is embedded. The whimsical story of Brand’s pin-button campaign is nothing if not testament to the dual uses of Earth-observing media, as ecological peace is secreted from military machination and national interest without having to challenge the ownership or operation of observing platforms.

Today, the entangled histories of the geosciences and national security imperatives have lost the horizon of the Cold War (where military and peace applications defined the “dual” of dual use) and are organized on the commercial terrain of global telecommunication and media companies (see Parks & Schwoch, 2012). “Dual” increasingly illustrates the conjoint military and commercial application of a given technology. In practical terms, we are now awash in acronyms—NASA’s Earth Observing System (EOS), the U.S. Department of Defense’s (DOD) Global Positioning System (GPS), a re-purposed Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS), the Global Earth Observing System of Systems (GEOSS), passive coherent location (PCL), and so on—all carrying humanitarian promises that open-source and real-time accessibility will generate social good from recording, storage, and processing capabilities that remain as unevenly distributed as ever. Of course, the dual use goes in all directions. Lockheed Martin’s Silent Sentry uses the broadcast signal fields of commercial FM radio and TV stations as a kind of passive radar, which permits the observation of aerial environments without trace of an observer.

Perhaps the best approach in this situation is one that foregrounds and refuses to dissolve the conceptual cleavages that continue to structure Earth-observing media in all its various sites and historical contexts. At any rate, this is the approach taken in this issue. Collectively, the articles and art assembled here disclose various forms of conceptual cleavage between security interests, scientific practice, civilian use, peace-seeking, and commercial development by 1) surfacing the industrial and military exigencies that shape our observation of the ground, sea, and air; 2) directing our attention to the infrastructural requirements of the signal processing systems underpinning environmental observing; and 3) aiding a re-conceptualization of the problem of the observer in media theoretical terms. Informed by diverse theoretical traditions, the articles develop the problems, tensions, and struggles involved in re-shaping environments to accord with modern Earth-observing practices. As well, these articles insist on locating the capacity to observe and experience contemporary environments in networks of power relations bearing the trace of colonial histories that involve military, cultural, gendered, and racial transformations of environment. Finally, the authors encourage greater attention to the material specificity of aquatic, terrestrial, and aerial spaces.

While hardly comprehensive, the collection does expand the range of media usually considered by scholars and includes work on digital globes, radar, sonar, satellites, atomic clocks, GPS, drones, and ultraviolet light detection as well as radio, photography, cartography, and computers. The focus is primarily North American contexts and points to a remarkable degree of integration between Canadian and U.S. observing platforms (whether it is SAGE in North Bay, the Dew Line in the North, the development of GIS, or aerial optics).

The cover image is from Charles Stankievech’s (2009) Distant Early Warning Project installation, located in Yukon Territory, which is one of his several fieldworks that brilliantly connect contemporary signal processing facilities to military infrastructure and to transformations of Northern environments. Stankievech re-purposed the technological infrastructure and cultural materials of the DEW Line (and earlier observing equipment) to develop signalling devices that were intermixed with the electromagnetic recordings of the BAR-3 DEW Line site and broadcast via the Internet.

In “Earth Observation and Signal Territories: Studying U.S. Broadcast Infrastructure through Historical Network Maps, Google Earth, and Fieldwork,” Lisa Parks develops a media studies approach that asks us to recognize how the Earth is constituted both as a material environment and as a signal territory. Google Earth is traced back to older traditions in network cartography, connected to the bodily effects of data-processing infrastructure, and used to create new modes of organizing perception of broadcasting. The project here is not another call for “media literacy,” but a research program for “infrastructural re-socialization” that recognizes how signalling capacities exceed our usual fascinations with representation and entertainment. Among the first and most influential of scholars developing a media infrastructure approach, Parks’ suggestion that scholars move out of their homes, offices, or cafes in order to facilitate embodied encounters with the infrastructural spaces that organize modern communication deserves serious consideration.

Jeremy Packer and Joshua Reeves’ article, “Romancing the Drone: Military Desire and Anthropophobia from SAGE to Swarm,” pushes media studies abruptly onto the terrain of military networks and automated assassination through vignettes that illustrate how political judgments are suborned by the logistic requirements of Earth-observing in wartime. Drones have removed military personnel not only from front-line observing and decision-making, but also from kill orders. The efficiency of drones requires acting on observations more quickly than humans can process information and make decisions; execution orders, like sensing, observing, and interpretation, are now handed over to machines. The resulting analysis makes clear how the essentially political nature of demarcating friend from enemy is automated, made the object of technical media, and subject to the operational exigencies of maintaining an Earth-observing system.

Leon Gurevitch’s article, “The Digital Globe as Climactic Coming Attraction: From Theatrical Release to Theatre of War,” uses digital globes to disclose the shifting medial conditions of climate change and geo-engineering debates. We see how new media are amalgamations of older media conventions remixed in new contexts and how a new geopolitical logic is emerging in this context, one organized around centres of signal-processing capacities that imply industrial management. Indeed, the complex, cyclical temporalities of geophysical processes are contained by media in order to make climate change observable to human perception in the form of a solution: geo-engineering synchs the unimaginable complexity of diverse spatial scales and temporal cycles to the scale of human intervention via cartographical, theatrical, and televisual conventions.

John Shiga’s article, “Sonar: Empire, Politics, and the Politics of Underwater Sound,” is a welcome reminder that neither the eye nor the aerial view should dominate conceptions of Earth-observing media, and he invites us to enter the acoustical world of the media aquatic. New sensing emerged in the context of a new environment as oceanic signal processing transformed deep water into an acoustic field of intervention for electronics industries, the military, and regulatory institutions. In particular, Shiga illustrates how different communicative assumptions (symbolic communication vs. underwater signal processing) implied different conceptions of oceanic environment, as water was imagined either as a “noisy” space impeding symbol transfer or as a medium for storing, processing, and decoding. Shiga’s insight into the way assumptions about communication and environmental space are co-constituted helps us locate central issues in media theory in an overlooked material environment.

Judd Case’s article, “Logistical Media: Fragments from Radar’s Prehistory,” brings together several of the themes explored in this issue through an investigation of the prehistory of radar. He reminds us of the quirky context of some indispensable figures (Wiener, Marconi, Tesla, de Forest, Shannon, and Weaver) and concepts (especially feedback, system, and logistics). Most notably, he clarifies how the logistics of feedback underpin observation as a signal-processing problem, which is a much more complicated matter than the transmission concerns implied by the SMCR models dominating early formulations of communication theory. Of all the articles assembled in this issue, the influence of Innis and Virilio is most obvious in Case’s work.

In “Precision Targets: GPS and the Militarization of Everyday Life,” Caren Kaplan, Erik Loyer, and Ezra Claytan Daniels build creatively from Kaplan’s (2006) previous cultural studies of GPS systems. In this work, the authors illustrate how the dual-use notion of GPS that informs the popular imagination has militarized consumer identity and encouraged the diffusion of security and policing protocols into contexts of everyday observation and transport. By adapting the conventions of the graphic novel and website, they juxtapose a series of tightly constrained discourses and technical practices to display the way observing and targeting are imagined, constrained, and securitized.

Finally, in “Forecast Earth: Hole, Index, Alert,” Chris Russill examines how sunlit space is recorded and registered as an environmental threat. I discuss how precaution is produced from Earth-observing media in terms of the ozone hole images, UV indexes, and hazard alerts that are disseminated publicly. The stratospheric ozone crisis, I suggest, initiated a model for integrating human populations into data-processing infrastructures able to register, store, and process environmental changes that outstrip human sensing capabilities, and did so in a manner retrofitting people to industrially destabilized Earth systems.


A project of this sort owes its existence to widely dispersed networks, and I would like to recognize some indispensable contributions. First and foremost, the unbounded generosity of Lisa Parks has made this project better than I imagined possible. As well, the other authors deserve recognition for writing original manuscripts around the theme of Earth-observing media. Sherry Waislow and Marilyn Bittman made the issue possible with their production skills and patience. Thanks go to Naomi Pauls and Brian Hydesmith for their copy editing and layout skills, respectively. I would also like to thank Michael Dorland for commissioning and otherwise encouraging the issue, as well as Miranda Brady, Sheryl Hamilton, Jeremy Packer, Michael Stamm, Ira Wagman, and Dwayne Winseck. Michael Darroch entertained ill-formed questions about McLuhan and Earth-observing and provided some good leads. Additional help, labour, and insight were offered by Melissa Aronczyk, Jordan Crandall, Simon Dalby, Jill Didur, Ross Eaman, Mary Francoli, Joshua Greenberg, Brian Greenspan, Shane Gunster, Karim Karim, Kirsten Kozolanka, Brett Nicholls, Patrick Scott, Nicole Starosielski, Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, and Alexandra Woods.


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