In January 2023, a surveillance balloon was detected floating above North American airspace. After several days of drifting and a flurry of apprehension, panic and indecision in the media, the United States alleged the balloon was a tool of Chinese military reconnaissance and shot it down. In response, Chinese authorities maintained that the balloon was conducting scientific research and had accidentally blown off its intended course. The incident further exacerbated the already strained relations between the two countries.
Even if the balloon was relatively innocuous, it would be a mistake to assume its nature was apolitical. The ambiguity surrounding its purpose and the resulting mix of anxiety, indecision and ambivalence it inspired are symptomatic of the broader context of planetary counter-simulation. The balloon, like satellite constellations, is one in a long series of astro-political artifacts deployed by nation states to reveal and understand the complex processes of the planet and the political entities that pattern its surface.
This event revealed a prevailing geopolitical reality in which nations continuously collect information to model each other's resources, strengths, vulnerabilities, and future actions. At the same time, governments assert that sovereignty implies the right to maintain secrecy. Airspace, imaging restrictions, and state oversight of private satellite companies attempt to limit surveillance from above.
The geopolitical sovereignty of space is the contested high ground for a new kind of planetary monitoring. Considered in their totality, surveillance balloons, satellite systems, climate models, and global markets form an infrastructure of planetary simulation through which governments and other actors attempt to model and mold complex processes far too large and distributed to be analyzed directly.
As these overlapping efforts at modeling and obfuscation feed back into each other, simulation inevitably begets counter-simulation: a set of techniques and strategies for the distortion or disabling of a simulated space