Dr Mia Bennett, Department of Geography, University of Washington
Over time, humans have been able to distinguish and capture finer portions of the electromagnetic spectrum. Whereas early film cameras recorded information in black and white, and later film in color, hyperspectral sensors are now able to identify extremely narrow portions of the spectrum at increments that far surpass the capabilities of the human eye. As each object has a distinct spectral signature, with healthy vegetation, for instance, reflecting different wavelengths than water, finer spectral objects can now be detected. Sensors can also “see” beyond the visible light spectrum, with growing amounts of information gathered from radio and microwaves as a result of innovations such as synthetic aperture radar. This technology, which sends out a pulse of energy that bounces off the target object rather than relying on reflected sunlight, can see through night skies, clouds, and below the surface of the Earth, offering insights to militaries, archaeologists, and many others. While remote sensing is making heightened claims to omniscience, I argue that the technique’s growing power to perceive runs counter to its power to persuade. To develop a politics of exposure and reflect on the cultural and epistemic consequences of hyperspectral and synthetic aperture radar, I bring the spectral turn to bear on remote sensing. Seemingly lacking in abstraction, fuzziness, and interpretability, state-of-the-art satellite images are anything but haunted.

About the speaker:

Mia Bennett is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Washington. As a political geographer with geospatial skills, she researches cultures and practices of frontier-making in the Arctic and orbital space. Bennett’s methods combine fieldwork and critical remote sensing, a subfield whose development she is helping to lead. Since 2009, she has run a blog on the Arctic, Cryopolitics. Bennett received a PhD in Geography from UCLA and an MPhil in Polar Studies from the University of Cambridge, where she was a Gates Scholar.

This seminar talk is hosted by the Centre for Drones and Culture (CDAC), University of Cambridge, and sponsored by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

(Image: “MODIS Satellite Image” by NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.)