Over at Empire.is, I’m looking at a map of America, covered in friendly red locational markers. Seen out of context, I’d assume they pointed to something fun, like all of the Big Boy locations around our country. In reality, these are our military bases. And there are so many red balloons tethered to our country, it looks like North America could float right into the sky.
Empire.is, by Josh Begley, is a haunting site that plots the United States' known military bases around the globe, then shows you their photographs (courtesy of Google and Bing image search).
“I’m not really interested in exposing secret bases,” Begley tells us. “I suppose I'm just trying to sketch the broad contours of our military footprint: what does it look like from above? How does it appear on a map? And in a fashion similar to the project I made about American prisons last year, how might we see this landscape as one continuous scroll?”
Inspired by the work of journalist Trevor Paglan, who’s famously used telescope lenses to get closer looks at military bases, Begley realized that the best, broadest view of the world military networks could be seen from the highest vantage point: our satellites. So he ran each of the locations of military bases from the 2013 Base Structure Report through Google and Bing’s search engines (both of which license most of their imagery via DigitalGlobe), then listed all of these snapshots to peruse like Instagrams on Empire.is.
Somehow, the effect is equal parts staggering and mundane. Most bases are some amalgamation of a runway in the middle of a field or desert—a boring scar on the land, dotted with a few white rectangular buildings. But others are unique works of art: Whereas the Naval Communication Station Holt (Australia) resembles any American suburb, the King Khalid Air Base’s (Saudi Arabia) jarring directional polygons resemble a Syd Mead sketch. Just when you think you've figured out the extremes at play, your eyes come across something like the Jefferson Proving Ground (United States/Indiana), which I swear, looks like an 8-year-old drew a submarine and a star to his dad in the service.
Not everything is visible. Bing and Google both censor satellite imagery not only by limiting our zoom, but by creating other interventions to separate the public from sensitive information (and not always in tandem). Volkel Air Base in the Netherlands, for instance, has been obfuscated at the request of their government. On Google, it’s a wash of green polygons, while on Bing, it’s a black blob. Meanwhile, a secret drone base that Wired's Danger Room uncovered in Saudi Arabia appears fairly clearly on Bing, whereas Google provides a simple gray box that reads, “Sorry, we have no imagery here."
Such differences make you wonder how such self-censorship decisions are made within each company. In the age of the seemingly endless NSA scandal, our proud information giants like Google and Microsoft appear yoked by our government. But where one might see a gray censored box, another might see a false courtesy. Yes, Empire.is is a staggering peek at our military bases, filled with soldiers, guns, drones, tanks, and aircraft. But the fact that they’re brought to us by Microsoft and Google makes you wonder, in the information age, who is really in control?