A publication of Appalachian Voices

A publication of Appalachian Voices

New Media Strikes a Deep Chord

By Bill Kovarik
Teri Blanton typed her five digit zip code into the web site. Then it hit her.
“I was shocked,” she said. The page showed that her own electricity was coming from the very mountaintop removal site that she had fighting for years.
As an environmental leader in Berea, Kentucky, Blanton was among the first this fall to try out a new ilovemountains.org web feature showing the link between home electrical use and mountaintop removal mining called “MyConnection.” (www.ilovemountains.org/mc)
It was exciting at first, she said. Showing the exact connection between end user and mountaintop removal mining has been a longstanding goal. At one point, activists talked about following coal trains with video cameras. Now a new combination of four government databases, connected through an ingenious web device, was showing the connection from her own zip code, on a map, to her power plant and the mountaintop removal sites that supply it with coal.
But Blanton did not count on the emotional impact of the new geographically mapped information.
“I said, oh no, not that site, that’s a community I’ve been working with forever,” she said of her work with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. “They’re being blasted out of their houses, flooded out of their houses. When I saw that it was my own electricity that was forcing them out of their homes, well, it was just too much.”
Blanton now buys electricity through a green cooperative, but recalls the emotional shock with a certain admiration.
Others have also discovered the new, deeper emotional connections that are now possible through new media.
For example, Cale Jaffe, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, had much the same reaction. “From the perspective of someone who works on these issues, I still hadn’t connected with that on a personal level before, so for me it had a profound ‘hit you in the gut’ kind of impact.

Along with ilovemountains.org, two other coal and climate projects using new media include the Sierra Club’s “Stop the Coal Rush” (www.sierraclub.org/maps/coal.asp) and Carbon Monitoring for Action (www.carma.org). The CARMA site shows the world’s dirtiest coal fired power plants.
The Sierra club keeps a database of proposed and cancelled coal US power plants. The plants can be seen on a list, but it’s more dramatic to see the status of the plants mapped on a web-based map or in GoogleEarth. The red plant markers in the image above represent coal plants that have been cancelled or deferred. (A note for the digitally challenged: GoogleEarth is not a web site. It is a map reader that operates as a separate application. It can be downloaded, for free, from Google.com. The Sierra Club site can be found in a GoogleEarth search or by downloading a special “kmz” map file from the Sierra Club site which may then be opened in the Google Earth application.)
“It has really made people much more aware of plants that are planned or proposed in their own communities,” said Virginia Cramer of the Sierra Club. “So we’ve seen an increase in the number of people who are vocalizing their opposition to these plants.”


One of the first uses of interactive social mapping involved a proposal for logging 1,000 acres of redwood trees in the Los Gatos northern California in the fall of 2005. Rebecca Moore of Google lived in the canyon and wanted to show the impact of the logging proposal. She obtained geographic date provided by the county government in a “shapefile” format (.shp) and uploaded it into Google Earth. Then she shaded areas that were to be logged and used push pins to attach notes and highlight various features of the geography, like schools and roads. (www.earth.google.com/outreach/cs_nail.html)
At an overflowing community meeting in September, 2005, she zoomed the map from outer space to the Santa Cruz Mountains, and then turned on the long, red swath representing the logging zone.
“There was a gasp from the audience,” she said. “We then flew virtually up the Los Gatos Creek canyon, past their homes and their childrens’ schools, along our steep and narrow mountain roads that would be burdened with a dozen/day 90,000 lb. logging trucks navigating more than 30 blind curves where children walk to school.”
“The flyover electrified the room,” she said. “Suddenly everyone began to call out issues, questions, concerns that were now apparent in the plan.” The community won the first round, but a revised logging plan is now being proposed. And a revised web site, complete with even more logging and community impact information, is being used to empower citizens.


Another important new site uses Google Earth mapping to illustrate and highlight the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, Sudan. In connection with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Google acquired satellite imagery over the region of Darfur and Eastern Chad.
People are urged to “witness the destruction in Darfur via Google Earth” and to “zoom down and see what a burned village looks like from above.” The satellite images also show the vast tent cities of people displaced from their homes.
Combined with photographs on the ground of refugees struggling to survive, and with eyewitness testimony about the atrocities, it is easy to visualize the face of genocide in Africa.
No one is suggesting that new media solves the problem -- the crisis is much larger than the technology. However, it is clear that, to some extent, the new media technologies are helping bridge emotional gaps in communities, in countries and around the globe.

New media often comes with what journalist John Hockenberry calls an “empathy upgrade.” And that can be a welcome relief for those weary of the impersonal and relentless commercialization of the mainstream media. For social and environmental activists, empathy upgrades through mapping and other tactics are making all the difference.
Connecting the mass media with the concept of social empathy is not an entirely new idea. Sociologist Daniel Lerner wrote in 1958 that radio was changing the world, and that the essence of a successful “mobile personality” was the development of an empathetic view of society through exposure to other people’s stories in the mass media. “Empathy, to simplify the matter, is the ability to see oneself in the other fellow’s situation,” he wrote in The Passing of Traditional Society. Lerner’s enthusiasm for hastening the advent of modernity has since been seen as a one-dimensional technology transfer model, but his insight into media empathy seemed to ring a bell.
A few years later, media theorist Marshall MacLuhan wrote that the transition from print media to electronic media seemed to undermine the “aloof and dissociated role” people tended to have in a literate society. He pointed to the success of the Civil Rights movement as new evidence that the media were linking people in unexpected and positive new ways.
Hockenberry’s empathetic epiphany came after he strapped on a small device that unexpectedly discharged fistfuls of confetti from his backpack. The confetti was meant to simulate an improvised explosive device. The backpack carried a GIS locator that mapped downtown Boston to a virtual downtown Baghdad. Walking around Boston, Hockenberry came upon places where the virtual Baghdad had been hit by a suicide bomb that killed civilians.
Strangely, the handfuls of confetti that were suddenly popped up into the air, virtually representing the war, created an emotional reaction in Hockenberry. It hit him as hard, he said, as anything that happened while he had been covering the actual war in Bagdhad.
Similar devices have been used more or less in reverse -- to measure and map emotional responses to travels around cities like London and San Francisco. The map of London shows details of a walkaround with a galvanic skin response meter taking readings every 4 seconds, correlated with GPS position, which is shown as altitude data above the basic map. (See link for technical information.)
It’s called “biomapping” or emotional mapping, and at first it seems silly. After all, the direct mapping of one dimension of one person’s emotional state as they walk through a city hardly tells us anything useful. But it is simply another experiment in an increasingly sophisticated set of new media forms designed to influence emotions.
Silly examples or not, the potential for new media forms are being taken seriously at some universities -- a consortium of European universities led by the Max Planck Institute in Germany is working together on biomapping or what is more eloquently described as “bio-inspired materials design and processing.”

Over 150 years ago, American writer Henry David Thoreau asked whether the telegraph would simply be a distraction from serious things, in his words, “an improved means to an unimproved end.” There is plenty of reason, even today, to be skeptical about new forms of communication.
Commercial uses for the new emotional linkage inherent in the power of mapped interactive media are built into Google Earth and other new media. Sometimes it is difficult to negotiate past the commercial messages. Search for Arctic Ice, for instance, and you will find dozens of ice making firms. The visual and emotional advertising assault that the characters endure in dystopian sci-fi films like Minority Report and Blade Runner will someday become all too common, we can be sure.
But without question, there are also serious purposes in the uses to which the new media are being employed.
To connect the suffering of people of Sudan or Appalachia with the rest of the world; to fight against new coal power plants in the face of climate change; to visualize the retreat of the arctic ice cap or the patterns of rising sea levels – these are the purposes people are finding for new database driven, GIS mapping media. It’s hard to imagine anything more serious.
It seems that Thoreau might admire the ends that have come into focus for some of the new technological means.

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