Why We Blog: Google Earth Mormonism

By Blair Dee Hodges

Published: Friday, Feb. 25 2011 5:00 a.m. MST

Editor's note: This is one in a series about Mormons who blog and why they do so.

With the sun at their backs on Dec. 7, 1972, the crew of Apollo 17 shot the earth. Their photograph, “Blue Marble,” was the most illuminated image of Earth to date, putting earlier black-and-white weather satellite images to shame. Only 10 years earlier, media theorist Marshall McLuhan had coined the phrase "global village," referring to a future world united through improved communication technologies. “Blue Marble” seemed to prove McLuhan's theory in full color.

Such utopian visions predated McLuhan. Orson Pratt, one of early Mormonism’s foremost authors and publishers, exultantly wrote from England in 1850 that increasing ease and speed of travel had “almost united the two continents into one.” Technological developments enabled Isaiah’s prophesied “swift messengers” to gather the elect to Zion.

“The extensive circulation of the printed word,” Pratt declared, “has also given an impetus to the rolling of the great wheel of salvation.”

The gospel would turn the latter-day global village into the kingdom of God on earth. Radio and television multiplied channels of communication beyond Pratt’s telegraphic horizon. Some contemporary media theorists echo Pratt’s excitement. Cutting-edge technologies have “opened up new ways of getting and exchanging information, destroying geographical and political boundaries in the process."

This utopian dream of a world united through media seems less probable today. Our developing technologies embody the improbability even as they challenge it.

Consider the detail provided by “Google Earth,” computer software that makes "Blue Marble" seem like the work of an impressionist. With lightning speed we can zoom in to spots all over Earth's surface, stunningly close enough to see a pack of African elephants on the move. We can see the top of the Matterhorn (at Disneyland or Switzerland) in seconds. As we zoom closer, the world's fragmentation becomes clear again.

The global village depicted by "Blue Marble" is seen through Google Earth as the globe of villages. The Internet, a tool providing more international commerce of thought than any technology in history, can also lead to fragmentation and boundary creation.

Professor Feisal G. Mohamed of Texas Tech University has noted how advancements in digital media have not “put an end to parochialism,” as McLuhan anticipated. Instead, “quite the opposite has occurred.”

Mohammed observe: “(W)e live in a cacophony of hidebound parochialisms where individuals seek association only with those to whom they relate by way of primordial intuition. … The liberal state, with its dependence on rational association, is dissolving into a collection of masses united by the parochialisms of ‘religion’ and ‘culture.’”

Such a phenomenon can be observed among Americans who, divided along political party lines, can seek out news sources catering directly to their own prejudices. As Mormon websites and blogs have been multiplying and replenishing the Web for more than a decade, a relatively tightknit community has emerged. New venues provide a place for marginal voices, be they “liberal” or “conservative,” “active” or “inactive,” or something else entirely.

The gut interpretation of all this is the Internet is bringing more Mormons together and creating a tight community spanning several continents. Global Mormonism can also be viewed as a “globe of Mormonisms” with new boundaries emerging between people regarding what it means to be Mormon.

Blogs provide places for people to come together — sometimes to soothe a sense of isolation by housing a community more suited to one’s natural proclivities, sometimes to find a community that feels more like home than those in closer geographical proximity. These two constructs — the "Blue Marble" and Google Earth — represent two ways to imagine new media’s effect on community: its potential to combine or divide us, for good or ill.

Blair Hodges, of LifeonGoldPlates.com, tackles how the ever-changing technology of new media is both defining and breaking global boundaries.

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