Week 7: Remote Sensing Technologies: the Implications on Society

This week in class, we discussed the implications of remote sensing in today’s world and how these implications are expressed or visualized through art. The professor specifically referenced aerial images of concentration camps during the Holocaust, pictures like this one: Photos like these are archived in the Getty museum, suggesting some sort of artistic value to these images. These images, however, were not taken for the purpose of art; they were taken by military personnel in hopes of gathering data during WWII. Why then are they featured in the Getty? And why are remote sensing technologies a medium or a topic of art?

Remote sensing technologies offer both benefits and dangers to our society:

[Remote sensing] promises an unprecedented ability for individuals to know where they and others are on the face of the earth…The shadow side portends new extensions of panoptical surveillance and control; authorities will be able to know exactly where things and people are. There could be no privacy, no solitude (Wilson 283).

The aerial images of the Nazi camps that are archived in the Getty now carry much more value than simply serving as data for military personnel; these images imply that what was once invisible to largely the whole world, is now visible through the development of remote sensing technologies. These technologies offer to society an extension of our capacities to see. And this extension of vision can be a good thing or a bad thing. The image above was taken in the 1940s but was not analyzed until new technologies allowed for such analysis in the 1970s. This begs the question: If these remote sensing technologies for analysis had been found sooner, would the Holocaust have been stopped sooner? Could many more lives have been spared? In this case, remote sensing technologies and their implications of seeing the unseen proved to be beneficial to our society. I think that this sort of discussion that these images engender, that are beyond the original intention of the images and/or technologies, leads to the perception of these images as not only data but also art.

On the contrary, the implications of seeing the unseen, especially at the level of the individual, raises ethical questions about privacy. Remote sensing technologies are largely being used in the name of safety and surveillance, but is it ethical to threaten the privacy of the individual in doing so? Artist Essam Attia raised similar questions in 2012 through his art pieces that criticized police surveillance:


Attia advertised these posters around NYC to criticize the use of surveillance and to address the NYPD’s talks on the potential use of drones to survey NYC. His art pieces were aimed to engender more public discussion about the negative implications of surveillance and the use of remote sensing technologies as the government’s watchful eye. His work raises questions about the negative implications of remote sensing technologies: is it ethical for these technologies to be used as surveillance tools? Won’t they impede on our freedom and privacy? Does the government have too much control over these technologies and over the population?

Here’s a video of Essam Attia discussing his work in more depth:

-Connie Paik


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