Remember the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which poured hundreds of millions of gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico in the spring and summer of 2010? It was hard to get a mental grip on the scope of the environmental degradation. Edward Burtynsky turned it into art. Chris Harmon turned it into an alternate-reality meditation on what we could have done with all that oil. And now Google has released a free 3D model of the wreckage of the oil platform itself, which currently lies moldering at the bottom of the Gulf. Out of sight, out of mind? Not anymore.
Google's model, which is based on heretofore undisclosed photographs and other survey data, combines fearsome physical accuracy with unintimidating, toylike graphics, creating a peculiarly effective kind of data visualization: Anyone can now explore the wreck in three-dimensional detail by downloading SketchUp, Google's free 3D modeling software, and loading the model into it. And since the model is interactive, they can even create interesting visualizations of their own using other free models in Google's 3D Warehouse. Want to really feel how big the Deepwater wreck is? Plop a model of the Arc de Triomphe next to it -- or an Ikea bedroom set.
But there's also something undeniably eerie and unnerving about that same user-friendliness. Here is the legacy of the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history turned into a candy-colored cartoon: an icon of corporate malfeasance and engineering hubris, locus of an ecological catastrophe whose impacts we still haven't fully grasped, grave site of eleven crewmembers -- and it looks like little more than a toy knocked over by a distracted child. As an interactive visualization, Google's model is useful and fascinating. As a metaphor for our collective state of mind before the disaster (and since), it's devastating.