Phantom of the Operations: Thin Skin City

John Zissovici is an associate professor at Cornell University Department of Architecture, where he teaches, practices, and researches new technologies and their relationship to architecture and the city.
We, the things and their image, are all one.

Technical images are phantoms that can give the world, and us, meaning.
Vilém Flusser

Technical Images

Today we understand that in “reality” everything that makes up the world is a swarm of particles in a constant state of change and decay, because we can “see” this swirl of particles with the aid of sophisticated apparatuses. In other words, what we call reality― the way we see the world ― is, like vision itself, a learned shared illusion. We are not born able to distinguish things, to see the space between things, or to position them in three-dimensional space. These are acquired skills that take years to master and coordinate with our behavior.

Mirroring this world of bits and pieces, images made by cameras and other devices are also an organization and assemblage of bits. For Vilém Flusser, these “technical images” constitute a radical break from all previous forms of image-making, because technical images require an apparatus to create them. Technical images are “an attempt to consolidate particles around us and in our consciousness ... to make elements such as photons and electrons, on the one hand, and bits of information on the other hand into images.”1 Flusser described technical images as “envisioned surfaces” and “particulate phantoms,” which themselves can multiply and interlock into a veil of technical images that surrounds us.

It is thirty years since Flusser’s observation that “[w]e live in an illusory world of technical images, and we increasingly experience, recognize, evaluate and act as a function of these images.”2 In the media-saturated 21st century, these actions “as a function of images” have only become more intense.

Like our shared reality, technical images only work if they are seen from a distance. Getting too close to technical images exposes their particulate structure, whatever its scale, and ruins the illusion. Yet it is exactly at the moment when the image fails to simulate another reality, with the collapse of the illusion that we can see “beyond” the image to its structure, and can speculate about the technical image and its relationship to the world it seems to merely mirror.

Digital technical images have, until recently, owed their unrealness, their distance from us, to the way they are created and to our remote interactions with them through the keypad and mouse. But the computational knowledge that allows us to move from the abstraction of bits of information to the concreteness of the image is also rapidly displacing the keypad with the touch-screen display.

Universal Information

Google’s stated mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”3 With Google Earth’s visual universe being an integral component of this aspiration, the virtual city becomes the ultimate destination for anything and everything. As the ultimate technical image that intends to represent the visible world, it is the ideal model for exploring new conceptions of the already highly mediated city, and ultimately for bridging the virtual/actual divide.

Touch-screen navigation on a smartphone in Google Earth — and especially in its more grounded offspring Street View — allows maneuvers unavailable to the mouse, which is limited by Google’s navigation tools. For now, a variety of three-fingered gestures enable zooming, panning, and rotating; that is, “moving” the image in relationship to the frame of the screen. This creates the double illusion of directly touching and manipulating the envisioned surface through the two-dimensional glass interface, and of “moving through” space.

At first, the fingers touch the screen to engage the image, but their movement transforms it. The virtual navigation of the city becomes a gestural experience. The city is, in Roland Barthes’s terms, “the surplus of an action.”4 The touch, expanded into the groping gesture, activates “the armature of permutational unfolding.”5 The city unfolds at our fingertips in any direction, with almost unlimited possibilities. This too is merely an intermediate phase. Already, motion sensors that track the direction of our eyes, or that are linked to sensors that can translate our hand gestures into commands, will soon enable us to manipulate envisioned surfaces, seen through augmented-reality glasses, on-site and in real time, without the interphase of the touch screen. We are on our way to developing a new sign language for communicating with images.

Under the Skin

Lucretius’s first century notion of “an image that bears the look and shape of the body from which it came,”6 is a perfect description of the world Google Earth constructs for us to look at and move through. This phantom image-world is the result of algorithms and scripted operations that automatically assemble thousands of individual aerial photographs —“bits”— into a vast three-dimensional mosaic: what Google calls the “Universal Texture,” a continuous topographical-image map of our world. It appears as a visual cast of the world, a painted death mask — what we might call a Thin Skin City. This Thin Skin City corresponds precisely to what Italo Calvino — who believed that the brain begins in the eye — called the inexhaustible surface of things.7

For now, the Universal Texture is placed temporarily on top of earlier manifestations of Google Earth, made from satellite and aerial photographic images mapped onto a topographical surface of the earth. The image mapping is not always precise, appearing sometimes more like patchy, deformed skin grafts. At times, the various modes of representation from different periods are exposed as redundant and conflicting information by the navigation system that sets no limits on where we can move once we have “landed.” If, however, we indulge our impulse for spatial practices in these virtual cities — practices that in the actual world tend toward the exploratory, if not the downright transgressive — we make genuine discoveries of enigmatic realms that have been mostly purged from our experience of the homogenized actual city, and, if Google Earth has its way, soon even from the virtual city. Wielding the smart phone’s touch screen with three fingers (like the keeper of the “Subtle Knife” who uses it to access parallel worlds by cutting openings into the skin separating them, in Philip Pullman’s book by the same title8), countless drifts against the grain are possible: hurried explorations under the skin of Google Earth, to record its current state before it disappears forever. Guiding the mobile picture plane freely through the image-city, unconstrained by the Google Earth Car’s routes of movement, drifting instinctively along virtual derives, one slices effortlessly through the excess layers of imagery, exposing its forbidden and transparent underside.

The encounter on our eld of expectations between Google’s slicing picture plane and its automatic mapping practices is the contemporary version of de Lautreamont’s definition of the marvelous: the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella. The spirit and tripartite structure of this formula was a guiding principle by the Surrealists in their revolt against the rationality and banality of everyday life, or, in this case, against Google’s mind- numbing attempt to create a visually perfect copy of our world. These illicit smartphone journeys liberate unprecedented spatial phenomena embedded in Google’s representational excess. They appear unexpectedly on the screen, partially hidden beneath the fingers as phantasmagoric evocations, apocalyptic visions, or more precisely, digital fictions, true science fictions, inadvertently created by the science of computation. They are technical images, which, by failing to create the desired illusion, con rm technology’s ability to show us something truly new; something that we cannot yet see.

In its latest version, Google Earth, like Google Maps, offers us the little yellow human figure to place and follow directly into Google Street View, a calculated distraction to discourage us from discovering its limits and flaws by wandering into the part of the image-world not meant to be seen from the pedestrians’ view. Street View’s world is assembled from images automatically collected by the nine cameras radiating outward from a sphere mounted on the Google Earth Car that roams the roads and streets of cities. If we manage to short-circuit the transition from Google Earth into the linear restrictive eye-level world of Street View, we are left to roam freely in the twilight zone between the two image-worlds. In this transitional realm, Street View’s at or curved surfaces seem to have acquired the gravitational force normally associated with the ground. They either attract us, or repel us uncontrollably, leaving us at the mercy of an unreliable and unpredictable mode of navigation. Each gesture on the glass surface of the screen propels us further into the unprecedented and unfamiliar technical image-world.

We are left with fewer and fewer opportunities to link this image-world spatially to our actual world. Each new vista results from the interaction of the computational apparatus that created the image and the tool we hijacked to interact with it. The views we encounter appear as anamorphic moments, only decipherable if we manage to rotate our position relative to it. One wrong move and we slide past the infra-thin image into another realm. Beyond the slightly curving edge of the image, a grayness fills the void, a stand-in for the “night sky” below the perpetually sunny Google Earth. A multicolored stretch of dense lines seems to congregate around some imaginary horizon. The gray is clearly a default color, the lack of any desire to simulate a corresponding phenomenon of our normal life. We were never supposed to be here to witness the nite state of this world — its back side — so why would Google bother?

Occasionally the image world itself appears to succumb to the gravitational attractions and repulsions of its various components. It distorts certain layers into unrecognizably stretched patterns and textures, a new and often exciting “reality” that we can either appreciate for its own beauty, or ponder what it reveals about the morphing algorithms, the digital gravity that holds this world together once the shared eye-level point of view has been abandoned.

Even our attempt to retreat to familiar terrain is rewarded with hallucinatory and revealing experiences. As we zoom back, it appears that we have been occupying a hemispherical realm whose center is linked to the axis of our movement. But the boundary of the sphere is not xed, and planes of images parallel to our movement project beyond its limits. The colorful and carelessly “drawn” horizon, likely the trace map on which the images are arranged, reappears in the gray beyond just when the notion of horizon should no longer apply. Here, at the unscripted convergence of normally irreconcilable scales, modes of representation such as plan views, perspectives with multiple vanishing points, and orthogonal projections propel us beyond the imageable, toward the limit of the imaginable.

As the distorted city slides into view on the screen, we accept what we see as a provisional actuality. In their fragmentary state, these views mimic less our actual cities than our own current condition of distracted attention, where we are constantly tempted by images on a multitude of screens that compete with the actual city at every turn. We experience the city shaped by intermittent vision disturbances, dislocation hallucinations and an acute sense of a doubling of consciousness. Movement in this world is an ongoing struggle to realign the axis of our estranged vision with the axis of the world. We are confronted by a sentient city that responds to our every move and is made strange by our looking back at it. Are these merely symptoms of our current transitional state, or the temporary premature manifestations of the fantastic that is constantly suppressed and purged from our actual and virtual cities?

Phantom Futures

Our veil is not to be torn but rather woven more and more closely together.
Vilém Flusser

Google Earth and Street View’s visual anomalies and gaps mark the breakdown of the image’s mirror-of-the-world illusion. These gaps do not merely expose the veil-like qualities of the technical image, but also the nature of its “construction.” Here, we “see” the space between the “pixels”―the individual images that make up these image worlds―where a new reality breaks through. Since we understand that everything we see is an illusion, alternate illusions could be woven together to close the tears in the veil of illusion, like darning a sock with our own hair. This is a model of our new hybrid reality where the envisioned surface and the actual world occupy the same realm, and we move seamlessly in, through and between them.

What we are looking at in these images is not just a new way of seeing the world, but something that can transform our world. To think of the world through the structures given to us by Google, the company that is on the verge of proposing a new device for seeing our world, is to anticipate and exploit the very technologies that we might otherwise either dismiss, or whose influence we are left to lament when it is too late. Whenever we look through our digital cameras, we are looking not at the world but at a mediating image of the world. We are already mostly seeing the world as an image. The radical potential of Google Glass and similar devices is not to have invented a camera that sees and can capture whatever we see, whenever we are looking, but for us to be able to see what that camera sees any time we wish, that is, to see the world as digital image. Our ability to be looking at the world through its digital image, enhanced or transformed by all that we can digitally bring to it in real time, anytime, alters what and how we see our world, and constitutes the truly radical and magical potential of these new technologies. Imagine Google Earth’s and Street View’s image worlds as technical images overlaid on our actual world, where we occupy and move through the two realms simultaneously. With control over the technical image in real time, we can choose how and to what degree our two particle worlds are woven together. What visions for our cities will we conjure up, bring to light and to life as envisioners of alternate hybrid realities and new phantasms? Better yet, what new ways of living with images can we manipulate into existence through our current childlike, though not childish, gropings in the infantile simulations of Google Earth?

Our image-world will recall the dome of the cave to which early man retreated to contemplate the world through drawing. But, like the spherical world in Street View, it will not make the world disappear, or go out of reach. It will be transparent, and we will be able to manipulate the images on its virtual surface and navigate through it while we move in our world. It will bring back the multidimensional world of Merleau-Ponty’s formulation where “[e]verything I see is in principle within my reach, at least within the reach of my sight, marked on the [touch-screen] map of the ‘I can.’9

All images are by John Zissovici unless otherwise noted. Originals © Google


1 Vilém Flusser, Into the Universe of Technical Images, trans. Nancy Ann Roth (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2011), 16.

2 Ibid., 38.


4 Roland Barthes, The Responsibility of Forms, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang,
1985), 160.

5 Ibid., 61.

6 Lucretius, On the Nature of the Universe, trans. Sir Ronald Melville (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), 102.

7 Italo Calvino, Collection of Sand (New York: Houghton Mif in Harcourt, 2014), xii. Philip Pullman, The Subtle Knife (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002).

8 Philip Pullman, The Subtle Knife (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002).

9 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, trans. James M. Edie (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964), 2.

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