Week 7 Response: Remote Sensing: “The God Trick”

In this week’s lecture, we learned about Remote Sensing. What intrigues me most is the concept of “God trick” of remote sensing.

Only with the development of technology (the invention of hot air balloons/planes/internet), human beings are able to view the earth from way above in a sky, from the God perspective (if God exists). However, the concept of the all-seeing eye existed way before the first hot air balloon was realized in 1783.

In traditional Chinese mythology, there were once two brothers(qian-li-yan and shun-feng-er) who have very unique and special abilities: one has the eyes which can see things happening thousands miles away and the other has the ears which can hear things happening thousands miles away.

the sculpture of shun-feng-er (left) and qian-li-yan (right)
the sculpture of shun-feng-er (left) and qian-li-yan (right)

They are the capable assistants of the guan-yin, a mythological god who has a compassionate heart and helps the mortals when they are in trouble, so qian-li-yan and shun-feng-er serve as the eyes and ears of the omnipotent guan-yin in the Chinese mythology. To me this somewhat proves one of the critique of remote sensing in the lecture slides: “The ‘God trick’ of remote sensing is all about un-situated knowledge, which is a fantasy of power.” (-GPS Remote Sensing Lecture, Lisa Cartwright 2015).

Taoism also incorporates qian-li-yan and shun-feng-er into its mythological system as well. Together with another two guards, their statues are placed inside the hall of the Taoism temple. However, their meanings are twisted a little bit. The qian-li-yan statue serves as a warning to the mortal that the mortal should behave themselves because qian-li-yan is always watching them. If they do something inappropriate, qian-li-yan will come and punish them.

With the development of technology and the incoming of virtual reality age, the God Trick as well as the all-seeing eye are becoming more abstract in that context accordingly as well. For example, the government’s surveillance as well as censorship in the Internet can be regarded as the God Trick(or qian-li-yan and shun-feng-er) in the virtual reality because no matter what message you send to each other in the Internet, the government can always know what that message is. There might be less personal privacy on the Internet than in our real life since in real life, the government cannot monitor our daily face-to-face conversation.

But still, the advancement towards the virtual reality is unstoppable. Should we feel happy since this will bring a total revolution to our perception and sensation of the world, or should we feel insecure due to the decline of personal information privacy?

—-Tian Wu


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