Pike points out another possible unintended consequence that high-resolution satellite imagery could catalyze. Countries like Argentina and Brazil have to take a certain laissez-faire attitude about each other’s military power at the moment because they have no easy way of answering the question: What is my neighbor’s level of military readiness? With high-resolution satellite imagery, however, “it can be an answerable question,” says Pike. So lots of information that used to be out of mind because it was out of sight can now come into view. And that could mean military commanders and decision-makers may feel compelled to cover themselves or impress their superiors by gathering imagery intelligence they never used to have access to.
Most of the expert observers contacted for this article believe that, on balance, it’s better for adversaries to know more rather than less about each other. “By and large transparency is stabilizing,” says Chris Simpson, a former journalist who now teaches at American University, where his research focuses on national security issues in communications. Simpson points to the Dayton Accords that were signed following meetings in 1995 when opposing leaders in the former Yugoslavia finally met at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio to try to end the bloodshed. The negotiations included “fly-by” satellite imagery that provided a pilot’s-eye view of a region. “They systematically tracked where various forces were, what the geometry of the forces was, what towns were run by what groups,” says Simpson. “It captured their attention enough that they were able to come to a cease-fire.” But Simpson is no Pollyanna: “Circumstances in which satellite data might not be stabilizing are ones in which two sides are evenly matched, but where one side has a greater amount of information than the other.” India and Pakistan, who are threatening to play out their own Cold War, come to mind.
And lying beyond questions of security-personal, corporate, national and international-is the issue of how the new pictures will affect our experience of the world. The images won’t tell us just where the weather is, but also “where urban development is taking place, where highways will be, where environmental crises are centered and where they are not centered,” says Simpson. “The next generation will grow up with this kind of overview as an integral part of the conceptualizing of the world in the same way that people have grown up with TV as an integral part of their lives.”
There is a big difference, however, between TV pictures and those that are about to flood us with fire-hose strength. Most TV imagery is local and all-too-human: couples in their apartments, players on a baseball field, cops in their cruisers. Satellite imagery is a veritable “God’s-eye view” of this world, though the raw images are nonparochial. Political boundaries don’t show up; the local is seamlessly connected to the global. The arrival of spy-grade satellite data into everyday life stands a chance of countering TV’s small pictures with the big picture. It could provide yet another tool, pixel by pixel, for human beings to express their ill will. Or, if we’re lucky, that big picture could have great healing power.