It's one thing to have the world in your hands – what are you going to do with it?

Google won the patent battle against ART+COM, but we were left with little more than a toy

Column I used to think technology could change the world. Google's vision is different: it just wants you to sort of play with the world. That's fun, but it's not as powerful as it could be.

Despite the fact that it often gives me a stomach-churning sense of motion sickness, I've been spending quite a bit of time lately fully immersed in Google Earth VR. Pop down inside a major city centre – Sydney, San Francisco or London – and the intense data-gathering work performed by Google's global fleet of scanning vehicles shows up in eye-popping detail.

Buildings are rendered photorealistically, using the mathematics of photogrammetry to extrude three-dimensional solids from multiple two-dimensional images. Trees resolve across successive passes from childlike lollipops into complex textured forms. Yet what should feel absolutely real seems exactly the opposite – leaving me cold, as though I've stumbled onto a global-scale miniature train set, built by someone with too much time on their hands. What good is it, really?

Back in 1995, I had the good fortune of meeting a team of very clever Berliners who had done their best to answer that question. ART+COM, founded as a collective of artists and computer hackers (some from the famous/notorious Chaos Computer Club), married the power of computing with an aspirational, almost utopian vision of the planet as it had never been seen before. All of that crystallised into a single, profoundly influential work that sits at the intersection between science and art: Terravision.

Conceived as a "whole Earth in your hands", Terravision presented a fully realised three-dimensional Earth floating space – excellent, but only the beginning. Using a beachball-sized trackball known as the "Earthtracker" and a "space mouse", you could interact with that visualisation freely, spinning the planet this way and that, in perfect synchrony with the Earthtracker. With the press of a button on the mouse, you could dive down, from ten thousand kilometres, to a thousand, a hundred, ten, down and down, all the way to ten metres above, well, pretty much any point on Earth's surface.

That all of this sounds exactly like the last time you fired up Google Earth on your PC or mobile became the focal point for a lawsuit filed by ART+COM against Google – and the subject of a recently released Netflix series, The Billion Dollar Code. It's well worth watching for the snapshot of a time when computing seemed capable of changing the world – and how that all changed over the last quarter of a century.

But Google Earth – and Keyhole, which had an early Earth-visualisation project until Google bought it for its own 3D planetary plans – lay years in the future. The reality of the Earthtracker in my hand, giving me the capacity to spin the globe about at will, permanently changed the way I thought about computing.

I immediately went off and began my own bit of coding, taking the supercomputer requirements of Terravision (it ran on a Silicon Graphics supercomputer probably less powerful than my new iPhone) and squeezing them into something that could get the point across on a desktop machine, on the web. Terravision inspired my own WebEarth – a project that I've kept and maintained over the years, updated to the latest in Web3D technologies, but which has long since been outclassed by other fantastic efforts like Cesium.

My idea – and again here I borrowed freely from Terravision – was to connect the resources of the web to the model of the planet. A three-dimensional model of our planet couldn't simply be a pretty picture: it was a natural interface to everything on Earth. That was my intention, and certainly the intention of the folks at ART+COM, who knew from the start that no single computer, no matter how powerful, could manage a model of everything on the planet. Instead, each Terravision installation talked to its peers around the world, forming a network-within-the-network, each publishing locally detailed information into the greater planetary whole.

That never happened. Terravision remained an expensive toy, never growing to the scale it needed to achieve a critical mass of sites. Instead, we have the highly centralised Google Earth – a system hoovering up vast quantities of planetary data, yet only offering its users a very thin gruel: the world not as it is, but as Google wants us to see it.

Early in the show, one of the main characters in The Billion Dollar Code intones: "Data is the weapon of the future. If we don't fight against that – in the future, all of our data will be in the wrong hands." In 1993, that might have sounded like a ridiculous overstatement. Today, it reads as a warning we never heeded. Instead of a rich, workable, open model of the world, we have been given a toy. Toys are for children. To do real work – for the planet – adults need real tools. ®

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