The downside to awesome 3D laser-mapping

Monday, August 24, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

Abraham Lincoln doesn’t need any unsightly veins removed. Teddy Roosevelt is keeping his glasses, and neither Jefferson nor Washington has made a complaint about having to shave his legs.

But they’ll all be getting laser treatment just the same.

The doctors on the job are preservationists, and they’re set to map Mount Rushmore this fall by scanning the monument with laser beams. This service will be brought to Americans by the National Park Service and CyArk, a nonprofit organization working to create 3-D representations of 500 cultural heritage sites the world over.

Once finished, the map should be accurate within less than a centimeter, and the results will be available online for the public. That means anyone with the Internet can not only look at the big picture but check for presidential nose hairs, should they feel so inclined.

It also means that if humans or the gods do anything to ruin the South Dakotan monolith — whether it’s cracked by an earthquake or made the symbolic casualty of a foreign missile —  then the four sober faces could be put back together again.

Clearly it’s a cool plan. Modern science further democratizes access to the world’s treasures. A site that’s integral to American identity gets a digital safety net. Educational opportunities abound. And with the laser gear costing about $100,000, one might view it all as quite a bargain.

There is one theoretical caveat, however — not one that rivals the boons, but one that elicits a sigh about technologically-enhanced modern life: The availability of the nifty 3D-model somewhat devalues visiting the place in the flesh. It’s one more reason to stay at home; it’s one more bit of white noise between every visitor and the so-called “sovereign" vision.

Sovereign vision is a concept that writer-philosopher Walker Percy used to describe what it means to see a place for what it is, without the experience being tainted by other expectations or opinions. A person with sovereign vision would see Mount Rushmore as the first person to view it did. And that’s harder than it might seem.  

Percy uses the example of Garcia Lopez de Cardenas discovering the Grand Canyon to illustrate the idea. Describing the moment, he writes, “It can be imagined: One crosses miles of desert, breaks through the mesquite, and there it is at one's feet.” The site is unbelievable. Cardenas’ mind is blown. Talk about reasons to write home.

“The assumption,” Percy continues, “is that the Grand Canyon is a remarkably interesting and beautiful place and that if it had a certain value P for Cardenas, the same value P may be transmitted to any number of sightseers. … A counterinfluence is at work, however, and it would be nearer the truth to say that if the place is seen by a million sightseers, a single sightseer does not receive value P but a millionth part of value P.”

This is because the modern sightseer does not see the canyon purely for itself: He or she sees it as something to measure up to a “picture postcard, geography book, tourist folders, and the words ‘Grand Canyon.’” Worse still, the sight can become primarily something to take a picture of, something to say you’ve seen; for that person, Percy says, “The present is surrendered to the past and the future.”

Mount Rushmore can also be measured up to parody, to a facsimile in Branson where the faces have been replaced by the likes of John Wayne, or to countless “Things to See in America” lists. And soon it will be compared to a Web site that allows people to view the monument in much more detail than a person visiting the park would ever see: The place itself gets lost in the fanfare.

Percy recommends a few ways of recovering sovereign sight. A person can "leave the beaten track" by avoiding the handrails and lookouts meant to facilitate seeing the place. You could, say, hang glide across in front of the presidents’ faces instead of walking along the park-sanctioned path.

A disaster might also change the way you see. Perhaps you visit Mount Rushmore, only for a fast-spreading, fatal disease to break out, a la “I Am Legend.” That site is isolated and is immediately closed off; suddenly tourists become campers avoiding death by staying above the fray on the presidents’ brows. Original vision is returned.

At least the first people to see the 3D-imaging will have a sovereign experience. And there remains some magical truth in CyArk’s message: Digital preservation can take you to the most remote places on Earth. 

Still, I sigh with the feeling that people are ever more ushered to a computer to experience the world they live in. That's the most efficient and fair way, sure, but no one’s going to bump into Dr. Livingstone in a chat room. 


Katy Steinmetz is a columnist and reporter for the Missourian. She moved to Columbia after spending two years teaching in Winchester, England, and one year in Edinburgh, Scotland. She has freelanced for a variety of publications, including 417 Magazine in Springfield, Mo., and the Guardian in London. Katy plans to complete her MU master's degree in 2010.


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