Posted on Tuesday, August 23, 2011
Those of you who don’t live on the East Coast have probably heard that we had a wee bit of excitement today:
A rare, powerful 5.8-magnitude earthquake rattled the eastern third of the United States on Tuesday afternoon, damaging older buildings, shutting down much of the nation’s capital and unnerving tens of millions of people from New England to the Carolinas.
It was not a killer quake, nor even a particularly injurious one. But if it didn’t add up to a natural disaster, it was still a startling geological event, the strongest East Coast tremor in 67 years, and it effectively blew up the workday in Washington.
I don’t have a lot to say about the earthquake itself. When it hit where I was, it was more puzzling than terrifying. The walls of the building were swaying a bit, and some books fell off the bookshelf, but that was about the extent of it. It wasn’t until it was nearly over that I realized it was an earthquake rather than, say, a piece of heavy machinery run amok, and while I’m no seismologist I’m pretty sure that in a serious earthquake you have no doubt that that is what you are experiencing. So we were pretty fortunate, all things considered.
What struck me, though, was how quickly people started turning to social media — first to confirm that what they thought happened actually did, and then to swap notes. When the quake hit, I stepped away from my desk to take shelter in a door frame — which it turns out is not really what they recommend you do in an earthquake anymore, though since we don’t really get earthquakes out here I didn’t know that at the time — and by the time things had settled down and I had returned to my desk Twitter, Facebook and Reddit were already all lit up about it.
The reason this struck me is that this is a fairly new phenomenon. Up until 5 years ago or so, publishing on the Internet was sufficiently complicated that people who weren’t paid to do so (i.e. reporters) didn’t really do it “in the moment” much. They were much more likely to use more private channels like text messaging, because they were easier and closer at hand. But now it’s so easy to publish online that people do it almost as a reflex. So when something big happens — or even something not-really-that-big-but-still-spooky like today’s quake — it takes only seconds for the reactions to start piling up. They progress from expressions of puzzlement (“What was that?”) to requests for confirmation (“Was that an earthquake?”) to attempts to share what the writer experienced (“Earthquake knocked all the stuff of my desk!”) extremely rapidly.
Or at least, they do when people have the chance to make it through each of those stages. In something minor like today’s quake, which caused no deaths as far as I’ve been able to determine, everybody who experienced it does.
But what about when it isn’t something minor?
Think back, for instance, to the 9/11 attacks, almost ten years ago. While the Web revolution was in full swing by then, it was still well before the age of social media immediacy. The people who lived through those attacks, for the most part, were limited to sharing their experiences with family and close friends via channels like text messaging. For everyone else — everyone who didn’t know somebody in the World Trade Center, or the Pentagon, or on one of the doomed airliners — the tragedy unfolded the way we’re used to seeing tragedies unfold: on the news. Television, with its visceral impact, came the closest to communicating the horror of the moment, but even there the horror was mediated for us by news anchors and editors. It came to us pre-processed, at least in part. We couldn’t look directly into the maelstrom itself.
The next time a tragedy of that scale happens — and one will happen, if not by act of war than by act of God — we will be able to look into the maelstrom. As horrible as it is to contemplate, we will have front row seats. We will be able to watch individuals struggle to survive, each status update or tweet illuminating them briefly like a flash of a strobe light, capturing them for a fleeting moment before it fades. Some will make it out and complete their stories with a tale of deliverance; others will not, their stories ending at the moment of their last communication before they were engulfed by catastrophe. Some will disappear before they even realize what happened to them, their last footprint on Earth being a message asking “What was that?”
Some will even die because they focused more on their posting or tweeting or whatever than they did on the need to escape. This may sound improbable — who would waste time futzing with their smartphone when their life is at stake? — but I guarantee you that it will happen.
It’s even happened already. When the Pacific Ocean tsunami that devastated Japan earlier this year finally hit our West Coast, it was so weakened by its long trip across the ocean that it posed no real threat to the people there. But one man died anyway, because rather than heading for high ground like you’re supposed to do in a flood situation, he headed towards the shore.
When this happens on a large scale — when what bureaucrats dryly refer to as a “mass casualty event” hits the social media age — I have no idea how we as a culture will process it. To some it will seem voyeuristic and gruesome. To others it will seem immediate and authentic: a tiny marker left behind by a lost soul reading “I was here.”
Eventually, of course, the immediacy of it all will dull, and it will decay into compost for historians’ doctoral dissertations. But for a long time it will feel like a punch in the gut, even to those whose only experience of the disaster was vicarious, sitting at a desk or behind a cellphone somewhere watching it all unfold, moment by terrible moment.
I have no idea what all this means. Maybe it doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it’s just the latest chapter in our long-ish history of struggling to come to terms with the technology we create; maybe six thousand years ago there was an Akkadian scribe looking at clay tablets with a similar sense of foreboding. I don’t know.
All I know is that we’re never ready for the future until it walks up and introduces itself. And I’m not sure I’ll be ready for this aspect of the future even then.
This entry (and everything else on this blog) was written by Jason A. Lefkowitz. Did you like it? Subscribe to this blog's feed to get new stuff the moment it's posted. Want to read more like this? Hit the archives for more than ten years' worth of essays, or jump right to The Best of Just Well Mixed. Angry and wanting to know who to punch? Here's more information about me, including how to get in touch by email and various social networks.