Experiencing Disaster on Internet Time

Wednesday, March 16, 2011 - 12:07 PM

Last Friday, while Japan was being shattered by the largest earthquake in its history, I was asleep in my Brooklyn bed, oblivious to the tragedy occurring on the opposite side of the globe.

When I woke up the next morning and turned the spigots on my many digital pipelines — email, Facebook, Twitter — the first thing I saw, even before I read the news itself, was a flood of reassuring messages from friends and family in Japan: "shaken, but safe"; "terrified, but all present and accounted for."

That underscored for me the degree to which the Internet has changed the way we experience crisis. In our digital era, disasters are visceral, immersive — we watch raw video and hear first-person responses and commentary within minutes of an event; we're no longer forced to wait in helpless suspense for word from friends and family in danger — we know in an instant if we should sigh in relief, or cry in grief.

And yet, the very speed and immediacy of how we encounter catastrophe may have also desensitized us to its impact. Everything everywhere is always happening now, in real-time and in living color. And maybe this constant, hyper-real assault on the senses —which emergency, what revolution, whose tragedy is it this time? — exhausts the empathy of anyone not personally involved.

That's the only explanation I can find for the reaction from some quarters to the horror in Japan — from entertainers like 50 Cent and Gilbert Gottfried, who made ill-considered and unfunny jokes at the expense of its victims, and news personalities like CNBC's Larry Kudlow, who suggested that while lives were lost, the silver lining in this disaster was that corporate profits seemed intact — but especially from the many dozens of individuals across the tweetscape who've chimed in to suggest that Japan deserved what it got. That the earthquake was fair retribution for sins ranging from Pearl Harbor to the Nanjing Massacre to the hunting of ocean mammals.

I don't want to think that my fellow Americans could be so horrifically callous to the deaths of thousands of men, women and children who weren't even born at the time of World War II.

I don't want to imagine that anyone could honestly suggest that scores of innocent individuals should die for the sins of the whaling industry.

I don't want to believe that it's a matter of race or nationality, that these reactions are driven by the belief that people who look different and live far away don't count as much as those who resemble ourselves and live right next door.

I want to blame the push-button spontaneity of the Internet. I want to think that if they'd just had the time to think, they would have thought better.

Because to believe otherwise is a tragedy of its own, whose implications are subtler — but no less heartbreaking.

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