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Column: Google Earth Giveth and It Taketh Away

How many of us have marveled at the images on Google Earth, data-diving from geo-sync orbit to our driveway with the simple toggle of an arrow key? And how many of us took Google Earth to be a compendium of full-fidelity images from space — an image, available on any cell phone, that ancient explorers could only dream of: the world as it is.

Now it seems the images offered by Google Earth are not always what they seem. Take the case of Sandy Island in the Coral Sea, plainly visible — until recently a week ago — on Google Earth. That changed, when some sea-faring fact checkers decided to sail over for a look, only to find that for Google Earth’s Sandy — like Gertrude Stein’s Oakland — there’s no there there.

That’s when Google treated Sandy like an errant blog post. A quick satellite refresh vanished Sandy beneath the waves, while elsewhere on the Internet an insta-edit at Wikipedia (click-done!) to add an entry that Sandy Island, formerly uninhabited, is now non-existent. Newly “un-discovered,” the island formerly known as Sandy recedes into the land of one-day wonders, just another online entry in News of the Weird.

Not so fast.

This may not be the stuff of a Select Committee of Congress, but it’s fair to ask: How did an island that is not, take shape and form? Who at Google Earth sketched Sandy in, when it clearly wasn’t captured in the satellite image, looking for all the world like a shadow-version of a plastic vessel from a Battleship board game? And who decided Sandy should be 15 by 3 miles — a land mass larger than Manhattan Island? Has the power of our cyber-world so eclipsed the earth-and-water one that we believe what we Search rather than what we see?

To be sure, this geological gullibility didn’t start with Google Earth. Sandy — or its French alter-ego, Isle de Sable — is shown on and off on maps dating back to the 16th century, though one “tell” might have been Sandy’s wildly oscillating positions through the ages, an odd attribute for an island. And it didn’t take long for some cartographers to speculate that Sandy may have been the sea-based version of a trap street: A fictitious map entry inserted to let map-makers know when their work had been pirated without proper acknowledgement.

But phantom Sandy is far more than a cartographer’s trick. Sandy Island needs to stand for the things we know that are not so — a cautionary tale of the deceptive depths of the information ocean in which we all swim. Maybe the old map-makers were right after all, embellishing the unknown lands at the edges of their work with fantastical sea dragons to warn us against what we did not know. Perhaps we should mark our own edges of the Internet, where knowledge ends in cyber-murk, in similar fashion: Take Care! Here Monsters Be!

After all, in an age when we grandly claim to have “researched” a topic by typing a few keystrokes into the content bar, if a data-entry geek simply draws in an island that isn’t, what else is photo-shopped into our virtual consciousness without our knowing? Quis Googles ipsos Googlers?

As a famous sage at one of the most popular online quote sites once said: “Our science is a drop, our ignorance a sea.” Sometimes it takes an island that isn’t to remind us that technology still needs to be tethered to the real — and that the only way to truly explore something is to set sail and find out.

If we forget that fact, the fault lies not in our search engine. It lies in us.

Daniel McGroarty, a former White House speechwriter, runs Carmot Strategic Group, an issues management firm in Washington.