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Here Be Google

Where can hell hide, now North Korea has been Google Mapped?

Public Assembly is a Dazed Digital Blog by architect, musican and writer Lawrence Lek, where he’ll be discussing how technology is changing our ideas of space.

Where do we live today? Hell, in its original form, has none of the fire-and-brimstone images of Catholic purgatory; to the Old Norse tribes, hal is a dark place, a concealed zone of the mind. Today, we inhabit the collective consciousness of Wikipedia histories and social networks, borrowing the knowledge of others to construct images of the world outside. Google Earth has made the planet into a single object, a three-dimensional picture of such density that there is nowhere for hell to hide.

Medieval mapmakers would conceal unexplored terrain in several ways - by carefully drawing monsters and clouds over them, by enlarging adjacent features such as forests or mountain ranges, or simply by appealing to imagination and writing the Tolkien-esque hic sunt dracones. This appeal to fantasy masks a deep and fundamental fear of the territories that lie unknown beyond the horizon.

Still, North Korea remains a mystery to us. Since the end of the Korean War it has been a rogue state, ruled by a single dynasty of autocrats who have expanded the cult of personality to unparalleled lengths. Their government has obeyed Karl Marx's call for the "Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes." When everything is public, the boundary between individual and state disappears. 

No regime in history has ever created an environment of such ubiquitous propaganda. When Google CEO Eric Schmidt visited North Korea in January, he brought along his teenage daughter Sophie who wrote about the 'very strange' experience on her blog. Murals and slogans praise the party in finely rendered details, while monumental statues and civic portraits glorify its leaders. As Sophie and her search-engine-running father were herded around 'guided' tours of universities, they saw rooms of students sitting in cubicles, endlessly scrolling through web pages purged of all meaningful content.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, groups of online cartographers have been classifying architectural and industrial structures in North Korea. The recent release of detailed aerial photographs of the country on Google Earth sparked a rise in sites such that catalogue 'Prisons', 'Military Facilities' and 'Concentration Camps'. Yet how far can we trust others to identify pixels of our planet? In the 1950s, American spy plane photographs of communal dwellings in China were mistaken for nuclear missile silos. From the air, a rural school in North Korea could easily be labeled as a nuclear research center; a coal mine can easily become a military facility. While there is no doubt that the North Korean government has built crimes against humanity, free information must be scrutinized.

Aerial photography started at the exact moment that cameras became light enough to be housed in hot air balloons, giving the public tantalizing glimpses of the earth as seen from above. For the first time, countries were revealed as continuous textures of nature and cities, and boundaries between countries disappeared. Soon afterwards, this utopian perspective of earth was shattered aerial photography was employed as a reconnaissance technique for the military. Hostile territories were classified, bunkers were identified, and key strategic sites were bookmarked for destruction. The intelligence officers of the World Wars had to believe in their analogue photographs because those were the only maps they had.

Nowadays, Google is everywhere. Its 'Earth' is a composite image, an incomprehensibly large Photoshop file stitched together from a million cameras. On Google, it is always a cloudless, sunny day. Precisely defined programs ensure that all aerial photographs are taken a cloudless day (ensure that no clouds ever obscure the city surface), near noon (so that shadows are shorter). Does this supply of superficially perfect information change the fact that our freedom is still limited? Today in the West, the military aspect of technology is invisible. The physical symbols of armed conflict rarely appear in our everyday life; guns, tanks, and bombers are confined to movies, television reports, and computer games. Yet society still projects its inner demons onto the other, into the unknown.

North Korea is the collective Rorschach test, the hidden nation that every politician and internet-surfer interprets according to their own fantasies. The paradox is that the more the governments of the West marginalize this modern dictatorship, the more the public become fascinated with it. From the broad, car-less boulevards of Pyongyang to the 'Children's Palace' and the towering, uninhabitable Ryugyong 'Hotel', the scenography of the country is shrouded in the mystery of the unfamiliar and is a magnet for photojournalists looking for a modern form of the exotic.

Photographs of Pyongyang's choreographed environments attract us precisely because they seem eerily similar to our own – its infinite boulevards and abandoned architecture bear an uncanny resemblance to our own suburban streets and 24-hour supermarkets. Andreas Gursky’s photographs illustrate this uncomfortable reality; our public existence is just as choreographed and anaesthetized as theirs is.

We do not want to look at ourselves, so we look at North Korea. We scrutinize it, criticize its human rights violations, laugh at Kim Jong Il looking at things, and become alt-tourists on a tour of weird humanity. But look again at Gursky's photographs. North Koreans are not unknown, they are us.