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January 12th, 2006
Thu, Jan. 12th, 2006 03:45 pm

Since Google Earth has just become available for the Mac, I've spent the last few hours flying back and forth between New York and Tokyo, zooming in on skyscrapers (perspective looks odd from space) and coasting along trainlines trying to tell one Chuo line station from the next (very difficult from geostationary orbit). Whose is that white van parked outside my old apartment on Orchard Street? And what is that extremely long blue shed in Ebisu, the one that looks like a particle accelerator? Is the Grand Canyon really that dramatic? How come there's (what looks like) an ancient Mayan burial site in the middle of Nakameguro?

Google Earth, with its amazing capacity to zoom and pan, is a brilliant tool for giving a sense of how the part relates to the whole and how one place relates to another. It's a kind of real-time, interactive version of the Eames' famous Powers of Ten film. But it's not the only top-down view of places and their relationships out there. Sometimes a simple phrase can serve the same purpose. Take the Japanese slang phrase zenbei ga naita, for instance. It means, literally, "all America wept". But young Japanese actually mean "It's nothing special" by the phrase. Japundit explains:

"When many U.S. films open in Japan, they are accompanied by posters claiming that American viewers were moved to tears. But such films have little emotional impact on viewers here. So Japanese filmgoers have learned, apparently, to disregard such promotional claims as largely meaningless."

Already, in that phrase, there's a Google Earth-like pan from Japan to the US and back again. As with the interactive software, we suddenly see how being on opposite sides of the planet can make two countries face in completely different directions, and have completely different interpretations of the same events. But it may also be that Google Earth is itself an American perspective on things, because it's a top-down perspective, and America is a very top-down place. For instance, I defy anyone to use the program without thinking, at least briefly, of Pentagon footage of missiles destroying ground targets in the first or second Gulf Wars.



Perhaps, if Japan had invented Google Earth, we'd have seen, instead of the simple top-down view, something like the characteristic 45° elevation view of gyaku enkinhou, an Asian representational tradition used in the 12th and 13th centuries, then again in the 18th and 19th. "While the Western perspective system uses parallel lines that are drawn on a picture plane convergent at a vanishing point," explains Jaanus, "in gyaku enkinhou they are drawn to spread apart as they go further into the distance." This not only allows the artist more space to put objects into, but gives him the chance to do something like Cubism: to juxtapose a recognizable side-view of objects (the one we get as we approach them on foot) with a map-like view of the terrain they're in, and their relationship to one another. Sure, we never actually see the world this way (which of us will ever see the world from a satellite's point of view either?), but it's in many ways more realistic than a simple top-down view; it allows us to see objects for what they are, and where they are. So far, my main reaction to Google Earth is "What the hell is that?" I can see where something is, but, since I don't spend a lot of time floating across rooftops, not what it is.

Today's Neomarxisme entry illustrates another way American culture is "top-down". Not only are Western societies more hierarchical than Asian ones, with a bigger Gini spread between their richest and poorest, they're also more oriented, for their basic perception, to the authoritative views of experts, pundits, celebrities and politicians. Marxy expresses surprise that, whereas American film posters use quotes from celebrity film critics like Roger Ebert to legitimize their products, the same films tend to be advertised in Japan with quotes from actors. This, Marxy thinks, is silly: "asking Kuriyama and Hirosue what they thought of the film is like asking the hot, slightly intellectual girl in your homeroom what she saw at the movies last weekend. And that's the point: legitimization in Japan is less about proving objective value through qualified experts and more about associations with human contexts."

But is that so silly? Just as a satellite picture which somehow showed me objects as I would see them from the ground ('human contexts") and how they look from space at the same time would be a more useful one than the top-down view we have now, so a horizontal recommendation system for films (and we're seeing more and more of them with the internet taking over from the centralised media) might be more useful than the view from the bully pulpit of some professional pundit. I think the same phenomenon is apparent in the difference between Japanese and Western fashion magazines: Japanese magazines are far more likely to provide street fashion reports -- pages and pages of them, for Japanese cities but also foreign ones -- than Western mags, which revolve around elite brands and elite stylists, and tend to mean by "trends" the decisions taken by Hedi Slimane and Karl Lagerfeld rather than anything happening at grass roots level.

A similar attitude comes across in Western journalism: read this New York Times article on cuteness and count the number of appeals to unspecified authorities: "researchers say... evolutionary scientists believe... Madison Avenue knows... experts tell us..." In the West we don't like to think of ourselves as the world's most "top-down" people, but we're certainly up there.

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