When, in 1994, a group of computer graphics professionals developed the Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML), a necessity for sophisticated programming skills overshadowed its potential for greatness. Since then, the emergence of virtual globes such as Google Earth has democratized, that is to say has made easily accessible and applicable to the average citizen, this geographic information. The implications of the democratization of information are immense; this new technology is propagating knowledge and affecting people, or at least has the potential to, of all demographics both directly and indirectly.
In his Digital Earth speech, Al Gore expressed his vision of a virtual globe which would “turn a flood of raw data into understandable information about our society and planet” (Bodum and Jaegly, Democratization of geo-information: GES, 2006). The democratization of information has achieved just that, and has furthermore helped realized Michael Jone’s, creator of Earth Viewer (later to become Google Earth), goal of developing cultural literacy. A prime example is the fourteen masterpieces from Madrid’s Prado Museum that are now available to be scrutinized at a resolution in which the individual brushstrokes and seams in the canvas can be seen. Supporters of this new application of Google Earth stress “the ways in which [this new technology] will “democratize” access to these great works of European art,” exposing anyone with internet to the world of fine art (Abend, par 7, 2009).
Michael Jones’ other hope for his user-friendly virtual globe was to foster global awareness. “It’s impossible to care about something if you don’t know it exists,” said David Tryse, who has developed several Google Earth KMLs (Keyhole Markup Language) dedicated to spreading information about the environmental issues plaguing our world (Butler, par 3, 2009). Tryse details how with a click of the mouse anyone can zoom in and see huge fires in Nigeria, toxins spreading in the rivers of the rainforest in Peru and Indonesian Papua, or even the dilapidated and torched villages of Darfur.
Skeptics argue that while the democratization of information is advantageous for those with access to the Internet and computers, the rest of the world is excluded from these benefits. This video provides information about just a few heroes of Google Earth – average people who learned about global issues they possibly would have not otherwise been exposed to, and have since taken it as their responsibility to make changes. Perhaps it is optimistic and idealistic to believe that the democratization of geographic information will benefit those in developed and undeveloped nations alike, however, the potential is undeniably there and this new technology has the ability to impact the entire world if those fortunate enough to be exposed are willing to take action.
As Bodum and Jaegly describe, “information, and especially geographic information participates not only in understanding the world, but also in shaping it” (2006). Google Earth is far from reaching its potential; nonetheless, democratization of information has and will continue to have broad implications for our world.
Abend, L. (2009, Jan. 15). Google Earth Takes On the Prado’s Masterworks. Retrieved from http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1871656,00.html
Bodum, L. & Jaegly, M. (2006). The Democratizing Potential of Geographic Exploration Systems (GES). In A. Abdul-Rahman, S. Zlatanova, S.Zlatanova, & V. Coors (Eds.), Innovations in 3D geo information systems (pp. 236-239). Berlin: Springer-Verlag.
Butler, R.A. (2009, March 31). Development of Google Earth a watershed moment for the environment. Retrieved from http://news.mongabay.com/2009/0401-tryse_interview_google_earth.html