The Threshold of Detectability


Recently our studio got a copy of Eyal Weizman's book, Forensic Architecture: Violence at the Threshold of Detectability. Weizman is the founder of Forensic Architecture, a research agency based in London and founded in 2011. They use a combination of forensic and architectural methods to investigate war crimes, assassinations, and other human rights abuses where there have been attempts to hide the truth. While the book on their work is fascinating throughout (you can buy it here), what especially piqued my interest is the concept of a "threshold of detectability," the point past which physical evidence can no longer be reliably captured or recorded by available technology. The threshold of detectability marks the divide between reality and possibility; events become questionable and the truth becomes fluid.

We here at Fat Pencil Studio often find ourselves right up against this threshold, and a big part of our work is navigating the known and unknown so that our stories are as accurate as possible. We often wish we could magically "zoom and enhance," but we've got to work with what we've got. An example that we commonly see is in image resolution, both printed and on-screen. Because we mostly model real-world locations, we rely heavily on satellite imagery. Google, our go-to, comes in at 1.65m x 1.65m (~64 x 64 inches) land area per pixel, or just 1.65m GSD (Ground Sample Distance). When those 64 inches won't cut it, we use Nearmap, a company that specializes in high-resolution aerial photography and offers better imagery than Google. Nearmap's imagery is captured by planes, which aren't subject to the same regulations as satellites, so the resolution is higher.

Historically the public (including human rights organizations) has only been allowed access to satellite imagery below a certain resolution. For a long time this was 0.5m GSD, though a commercial satellite company appealed to the US Department of Commerce and had it lowered (raised?) to 0.31m on the grounds that it was still not possible to detect human figures on the ground at that resolution. Privacy is, of course, a major concern. But does limiting access to imagery also serve to obscure criminal acts and human rights violations?

photographic-modulor copy

The "photographic modulor", based on LeCorbusier's Modulor. Eyal Weizman, Forensic Architecture: Violence at the Threshold of Detectability, 2017

It's worth noting that the legislation that exists to limit the resolution of available satellite imagery doesn't extend to governments. The United States, for example, has spy satellites that can resolve to 6 inches x 6 inches on the ground per pixel (.15 GSD). From space. While access to information is another topic entirely (and one we've touched on before), it's also worth asking ourselves if we trust governments to use such detailed imagery judiciously.

For now we can only guess at what the future holds in terms of satellite imaging and legislation concerning privacy and accessibility of information. With sharper imaging and more advanced technologies, our veil of privacy is becoming thinner. The distribution of information resources is arguably the most important issue of our time, as it has impacts on privacy, security, human rights, and governmental sovereignty. After all, knowledge is power.

Jannine Hanczarek was a Designer at Fat Pencil Studio from 2017-2020.