Digital Earth as a myth

This article was originally published as The myth of the Digital Earth between fragmentation and wholeness in Wi: Journal of Mobile Culture, 2014, 8(2). 1–20. I feel that an updated version is needed to keep track of how the relentless digitisation of the surface of the planet is talked about and imagined by different groups.

#media #digitalearth #hype #myth #digitalgeography

Abstract. Daring predictions of the proximate future can establish shared discursive frameworks, mobilize capital, and steer complex processes. Among the prophetic visions that encouraged and accompanied the development of new communication technologies was the “Digital Earth,” described in a 1998 speech by Al Gore as a high-resolution representation of the planet to share and analyze detailed information about its state. This article traces a genealogy of the Digital Earth as a techno-scientific myth, locating it in a constellation of media futures, arguing that a common subtext of these envisionments consists of a dream of wholeness, an afflatus to overcome perceived fragmentation among humans, and between humans and the Earth.

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Introduction. The ability to collect and communicate information about the earth is an essential element to human material survival. Hence, it should not come as a surprise that the development of digital media over recent decades has impacted enormously on how Earth-related information is generated, analyzed, and stored. Positioning infrastructures, remote sensor networks, geographic information systems, Web-enabled smartphones, virtual globes, digital maps, SatNavs, and location-based services form complex technological assemblages that impact human mobility, reshaping travel modes, geographical imaginations, cultural flows, and the intimate connections between places and people. To capture these developments, human geographers have named these recent trends as “new spatial media,” “neogeography,” and the “geoweb” (Leszczynski and Wilson 2013), while communication scholars recently coined the term “Earth-observing media” (Russill 2013). Such technologies do not exist in a coherent framework and did not develop from a single research programme, but rather have arisen from diverse military, corporate, and academic milieux, for often radically different purposes.

Describing detailed visions of the future might be thought of as an activity of a pre-modern past, incompatible with modern techno-scientific enterprises. Nothing could be farther from the truth. From the perspective of media studies, it is particularly important to look at what visions animated the development and the adoption of geo-technologies, uncovering the specific techno-scientific and political discourses that surrounded their inception. As Dourish and Bell (2011) noted, research on new information technology is often animated by “organizing visions” on how the new tools will impact the world, bringing about exciting and inevitable changes not only for technologists, but for all humankind (p. 1). These pictures of the “proximate future” tend to be portrayed as saturated by new technology, always around the corner, therefore making the present out-dated (Bell and Dourish, 2007). Analyzing visions of future mobile communication, de Vries (2012) defines them as “necessary fictions,” resulting from the “psychological need to create order out of chaos, to create utopian landmarks that we can look out for while travelling along the paths of life” (p. 48).

A long-standing tradition in media scholarship has focused on this recurrence of utopian (and dystopian) visions around virtually every major technical invention, including electricity, wireless telegraphy, steam power, air travel, telephony, cinema, television, nuclear energy, and space travel (e.g. Corn 1986, Marvin 1990). Each time, the new tools promised to eradicate major societal ills, such as war, poverty, isolation, scarcity of resources, and gender, racial, or economic inequalities. A key concept within this tradition is the notion of the “technological sublime,” (Marx 1964, Nye 1996), i.e. the sentiment of wonder triggered by the contemplation of technology and mechanisation as a specific character of American culture, fostering faith in progress and modernity. Recasting the concept in the context of electricity as the “electrical sublime,” Carey and Quirk (1989a) observed that electricity promised “the same freedom, decentralization, ecological harmony, and democratic community that had hitherto been guaranteed but left undelivered by mechanization” (p. 94).

The emergence of digital computers in the mid-20th century is no exception to the rule and digital media have fostered wild narratives of the future, particularly in relation to the development of the Internet. Turner (2006) identified the common origin of these narratives as “digital utopianism,” and traced it back to countercultural movements in the 1960s. These hyped digital narratives are analysed by Coyne (1999) under the lens of “technoromanticism,” that is the “spectrum of romantic narrative that pervades the digital age,” inflating expectations and promoting the heroism of the digital entrepreneur (p. ix). Mosco (2004) strikingly explored computer-centred utopian visions under the notion of the “digital sublime,” reading these technological discourses as modern myths, drawing on anthropological theories of myth-making as social construction of meaning. Myths are animated by a “bricoleur,” an individual who “pulls together the bits and pieces of technology’s narratives, to fashion a mobilizing story for our time … [an] heroic narrative with didactic effect” (p. 36). In this view, whether specific visions would be fulfilled or not is beyond the point:

it is important to state at the outset that myths mean more than falsehoods or cons; indeed, they matter greatly. Myths are stories that animate individuals and societies by providing paths to transcendence that lift people out of the banality of everyday life. They offer an entrance to another reality, a reality once characterized by the promise of the sublime. … myths are not true or false, but living or dead (Mosco 2004, p. 3).

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