The joy of looking down on ourselves

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It seems rather neat, somehow, that the Queen should have made a sizeable profit from a project that sets out to look down on her subjects. Her Majesty is one of the shareholders in an e-company set up to create a new Millennium Map, a mosaic aerial photograph of Britain photographed - according to the Getmapping website - by Rockwell Aerocommanders flying at 5,000 feet. Some 90 per cent of the country has been photographed at a resolution that allows you to see objects as small as 25cm across, and the idea is that customers will eventually be able to zoom in on virtually any part of the kingdom. At present, though, the website only offers a low-resolution image of Westminster Bridge, one that just about allows you to count the spokes on the then recumbent Millennium Wheel but isn't quite crisp enough to show the time on Big Ben.

The appeal of this clearly isn't universal - when I attempted to excite my wife with the possibilities of examining our particular suburb of north London from thousands of feet up she looked blank. "What for?" she asked, declining to waste any words on elaborating her bemusement. She took the view, difficult to contradict, that an A-Z would do perfectly well if we were looking to locate ourselves in relation to local landmarks, and that the kitchen door would serve if we merely wanted to see what was in the back garden.

But even so I think the Queen, or her financial advisers, were shrewd to realise the appeal of this activity would spread far beyond those for whom it has genuine utility. Getmapping has plenty of competitors in the bird's-eye view market, some of whom are also using aerial photography and many more who are exploiting the availability of satellite photography.

The American satellite company Space Imaging, for example, will sell you pictures at one-metre resolution of virtually any spot on the planet, including many of those prohibited areas that so excite the prurience of conspiracy hobbyists. Rather sweetly they point out that they won't provide information to terrorists or "rogue nations", so if the name on your credit card is Brotherhood of Blood for the Extinction of the Great Satan you may find it tricky to get hold of shots of CIA headquarters.

Most people, of course, will be far less interested in the secret state's backyard than in their own. The charm is two-fold. First of all it offers a kind of cosmic reassurance. Beginning with a map of the UK you can slowly zero-in on your own little blessed plot, and as you do so there is an odd feeling of confirmation - of amazement that something quite so elevated should have included you in its regard. The mechanism of the zoom only amplifies feeling because it offers the illusion that your own negligible patch of earth is the centre of attention - all that is peripheral falls aside. It offers a similar pleasure to that enjoyed by schoolchildren who write their addresses in books, beginning with the street and number and ending with the word "Galaxy".

More importantly, the overhead view offers a powerful frisson of commanding superiority - that low-cost transcendence most of us experience shortly after we get inside a passenger aircraft and outside a good strong gin and tonic. It's hardly surprising that the devil should have tempted Christ with a vision from a high place - detached from the earth, even if only by photographic means, it is easy to feel far above its petty preoccupations.

When you get this high up, elevations that are un-ignorable at ground level diminish to nothing. Indeed, as the Getmapping site demonstrates, you can even look down on Buckingham Palace, though I imagine the Queen took care to be inside when the Aerocommander plane actually passed overhead.