April 30, 2010

Google Earth Mormonism

In honor of the concluding semester and my graduation, here's a really rough cut of some stuff I'm tinkering with. Suggestions, questions, feedback are appreciated. Forgive the length.

We would never see our planet the same again after December 7, 1972. With the sun at their backs, the crew of Apollo 17 shot the earth. Their photograph ("Blue Marble," at left) was the most illuminated image of Earth yet, putting earlier black-and-white weather satellite images to shame. It captured our nakedness in outer space. People saw the world differently than ever before. And it seemed to be shrinking.1

Only ten years earlier Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase "global village," referring to the interconnectedness of the world through the expansion of communication, transportation, and other technological capabilities.2 Blue Marble provided photographic evidence for McLuhan's theory. People could see the world from the outside; it looked a lot like McLuhan's global village. Physically the world hadn't changed of course, but we mentally re-conceived it. The global village is our perception of the interconnectivity of the world.

Latter-day Saints were attuned to McLuhan's ideas about the global village a hundred years earlier. Orson Pratt, one of early Mormonism’s foremost authors and publishers, exultantly wrote from England in 1850 that the increasing ease and speed of travel had “almost united the two continents into one.” Technological developments enabled Isaiah’s prophesied “swift messengers” to warn the world of coming judgment and 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.”3 The gospel would sweep the earth, turning the latter-day global village into the Kingdom of God on earth. Pratt was writing on the tail-end of the printing press, looking to the future of telegraph and railroads (could he have even conceived of an ipod or cell phone, or a space ship snapping a still photo of the entire planet?).

Things didn't stop with the telegraph, the steam engine, the telephone, or the Blue Marble. Technology kept developing different ways to send and receive with radio and television. Media theorists continue to expect such development to break down walls between nations and cultures, they hope for the ability to create a great neighborhood from the great global village. Although living in a significantly different world than Pratt, they sound much like him, being excited by the cutting edge technologies that have “opened up new ways of getting and exchanging information, destroying geographical and political boundaries in the process."4]

At the same time, media development can strengthen old boundaries and create newer borders altogether. The Utopian dream of a world united through media has begun to seem improbable today. Our developing technology embodies the improbability even as it challenges it. If Blue Marble represents the vision of the global village, advancing technology has given us a newer vision. For example, the detail provided by Google Earth has made Blue Marble seem like the work of an impressionist. With lightening speed we can zoom in to spots all over the earth's surface, stunningly close enough to see a pack of African elephants on the move. We can see the Matterhorn (at Disneyland or Switzerland) in seconds.5 As we zoom closer and 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 global access and connection than anything in history, can also aid in fragmentation and boundary-making.

How did Colleen LaRose become "Jihad Jane"?6 Through social networking sites the 46-year-old Pennsylvania woman became the resident of a radical village from the comfort of her own living room. Feisal G. Mohamed, assistant professor of English at Texas Tech University, noted how digital media aids the rise of such "homegrown terrorism."7 Mohamed believes where a person lives is no longer a reliable index of what they read or think, the ideas they are exposed to. Jihad Jane found dangerous community without geography. She wasn't simply visiting the wrong websites. She wanted no part of a full global village, using new media to forge destructive new human relationships.  McLuhan's famous claim that "The medium is the message" is true, Mohamed says, "because it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action."8

Although McLuhan believed the new global village, facilitated by miraculous intercontinental transport and communication by new media, would “put an end to parochialism, quite the opposite has occurred," Mohamed observes. "Rather than his global village, we have become a globe of villages; we 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.’”

The same phenomenon can be seen among Americans who, divided along political party lines, can seek out news sources that cater directly to their own prejudices. If you don't like the supposedly liberal-leaning MSNBC programming, turn to FOX News, where their slogan "fair and balanced" seems anything but at times. Mohamed, a Muslim Canadian, fears that such selective attention encourages isolation, drawing borders in a globe of villages rather than bringing people together who sincerely want to hear and understand the perspective of another, even in disagreement. It can do the opposite, of course. Mohamed reached a point in his life when he realized he had more in common with a Jewish American than the Egyptian Muslims across the globe to whom he always felt a connection. While reading a Philip Roth novel he came across the phrase "Newark was all of Jewry to me," which brought into focus his formerly shallow understanding of his religion and culture. "Only after reading Roth’s statement," Mohamed notes, "did it occur to me that though I had always identified myself as Egyptian-Canadian, my sense of what was Egyptian had little connection to the seventy-two million individuals living a world away in Egypt, most of whom eke out a subsistence living using agricultural techniques that have not changed in the past millennium."9
As Pratt predicted the word of God is traversing the globe which has been divided up in the Mormon consciousness as a world of regions, regions of stakes, stakes of branches and wards, wards of families and individuals, children of God. But global Mormonism can also be understood as a globe of Mormonisms with boundaries popping up—not only from geopolitical entities and cultures—but from differences of opinion or perspectives on what it means to be Mormon. This plays out in the so-called Bloggernacle at times where new designations like "TBM" and "NOM" have appeared, somewhat pejorative shades of Richard Poll's "Iron Rod/Liahona" typology.10 New media again provides a place for people to come together—sometimes to aid our sense of isolation by finding a community more suited to our natural proclivities, sometimes to find a community that feels more like home than those in closer geographical proximity. The global village is the globe of villages for better and worse.

Finding others who seem to see the world as we do can be refreshing. New media avenues provide new spaces for such meetings. But new media has also created new intersections where the likelihood of crossing paths with Mormons who see the world much differently increases. We can use new media to learn, or merely to reinforce what we think we've already learned, saying: "we have enough, we need no more" (2 Nephi 29:6). I've been amazed at the richness of Mormonism within my own home ward, which earlier seemed to me much more homogeneous. I remember when Utah was all of Mormonism to me. Sometimes it still is. The blessing and curse brought by new media is the changing of my "Blue Marble Mormonism" into "Google Earth Mormonism." A blessing, a curse, an opportunity.

The first satellite photographs of Earth were made on August 14, 1959 by the U.S. satellite Explorer 6. See "History of the Blue Marble," http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/BlueMarble/BlueMarble_history.php, accessed 27 April 2010.

Marshall McLuhan discussed the global village in The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962) and Understanding Media (1964).

Orson Pratt, "An Epistle of President Orson Pratt, To The Saints Throughout Great Britain," 23 July 1850, The Latter-day Saints Millennial Star vol. XII (15 August 1850), p. 246. Latter-day Saints weren't alone in viewing the shrinking of the world through technology, although they couched it in Mormon terms and with Mormon ideas including the Kingdom of God and the impending return of Christ.

Janet Kolodzy, Convergence Journalism: Writing and Reporting Across the New Media, (Rowman & Littlefield, 2006), 6.

The elephants can be seen at Google Earth coordinates 10.903497,19.93229. See Tom Spring, "In Pictures: The Strangest Sights in Google Earth," PC World, 8 July 2007, accessed 28 April 2010. To see the Matterhorns, type "Matterhorn" in the "Fly to" field and click "Begin search."

CNN, "Jihad Jane, American who lived on Main Street," 10 March 2010, accessed 27 April 2010.

Feisal G. Mohamed, “The Globe of Villages: Digital Media and the Rise of Homegrown Terrorism,” Dissent (Winter, 2007), 61-64, accessed 27 April 2010.


Mohamed adds: "As with Roth, everything I had grown up recognizing as a part of my ethnic heritage—Egyptians don’t play sports, drink, or curse; they wear their religion lightly, laugh from the soul, and are moved to outrage only when their children underachieve at school—had been learned from the hundred or so households of Egyptian emigrĂ©s in my hometown of Edmonton, Canada, nearly all of whom, men and women, I proudly stress, were university-educated professionals." Ibid.

See Richard D. Poll, "What the Church Means to People Like Me," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 2:4 (Winter 1967), 107–17; "Liahona and Iron Rod Revisited," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 16:2 (Summer 1983), 67–78. Such typologies can be useful, but they can also be a way of excluding, a way of drawing borders between Mormon villages.