What is the worst thing you've read today? The second worst? And the worst after that? How do you decide? What matters?
In a world where we are exposed to news events from all around the world every minute of the day, it has become more challenging to give a single story the attention it deserves. This is a problem.
In a moving post this week, Boulder resident Drea Knufken at Salon called attention to the indifference many are showing to the disastrous flood that has devastated parts of Colorado:
As I write this, Colorado’s Front Range is in the middle of its worst natural disaster in about 100 years. For people like me, who live here, it is a flood of tragic proportions. To the world, it is just another disaster. When many of my out-of-town friends, family and colleagues reacted to the flood with a torrent of indifference, I realized something. As a society, we’ve acquired an immunity to crisis. We scan through headlines without understanding how stories impact people, even those we love. Junk news melds with actual emergencies, to the point that we can’t gauge danger anymore.
Even in Boulder, at the beginning of the flood, everyone welcomed the deluge. College kids rode their bikes through the knee-deep water that had settled over the bike path. Families trundled into newly formed lakes with their inner tubes. Children splashed with delight in the muddy, opaque water, the same water that would soon become a burial ground.
From my distant vantage point in New York, I can attest to this odd dichotomy simply from seeing the mix of imagery that has come out of Colorado in recent days. There are pictures of little kids playing in the early flood waters next to haunting shots of people digging their most cherished possessions out of mud. In one shot college-aged guys slide through flooded yards and in another a house is thrashed to rubble by the rushing water.
I could understand how even for someone in Colorado, your perception of the severity of the crisis would vary greatly based on which media you were consuming.
For those outside of Colorado, Knufken concludes it is the number of events happening at one time to that alters our ability to feel fully compassionate towards a single event:
Boulder is my backyard, my home. To me, the floods are urgent; they are an emergency. To others, our floods are another face in the crowd of headlines. Today alone, I read in the news that 260,000 people had to evacuate Kyoto due to a typhoon. In Washington’s Navy Yard, someone murdered 13 people with a gun. There’s the new episode of “Breaking Bad” and the threat of war in Syria. Every headline screams to be first in line. Everything is a crisis.
Making this sense of disconnection even worse, Knufken argues, is the deceptive nature of social networks that allows people outside of a situation to feel like they have adequately addressed it with a single digital action:
I’d like to think that in our networked world, it’s easy to comprehend how the things we read about in the news or on social media might be impacting friends and loved ones. It seems, however, that we’re so drowned in data that we’ve become comfortably numb. Even our reactions have become passive, disconnected. Hitting “like” on Facebook or leaving a sympathetic tweet doesn’t come close to the human power of a phone call, especially for someone facing the loss of their home, their health, their life. We’re too disengaged to connect the dots between disaster and its human impact. And that scares me.
She makes some other important points, so please read the rest.
All of this got me thinking about journalism and narrative and stories and how we deal with events like this.
I'm currently reading Douglas Rushkoff's new book, Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, which examines the causes and consequences of our current "presentist" world (as opposed to the "futurist" thinking).
In the first chapter, Rushkoff explains how narrative has changed over several decades. While we used to read the morning paper and watch the 5pm news, he sees the modern news media as having played a major role in changing how we think:
The world is now connected by the news feeds of twenty-four-hour networks, and so together we watch the slow-motion, real-time disasters of Hurricane Katrina, Deepwater Horizon, and the Fukushima nuclear plant--as well as what feels like the utter ineffectualness of our leaders to do anything about any of it. CNN put up a live feed of the BP well spewing out its oil into the gulf and kept it in a corner of the broadcast continuously for months. The constancy of such imagery, like the seemingly chronic footage of Katrina victims at the New Orleans Superdome holding up signs begging for help, is both unnerving and desensitizing at the same time. With each minute that goes by with no relief in sight our impatience is stoked further and our perception of our authorities' impotence is magnified.
When I was watching news clips and YouTube videos and looking for wire photos of the Colorado flooding, it struck me how similar the shots looked to so many other disasters scenes.
In this video from Colorado's flood, notice how the horrifying video of the cars washing down the highway is repeated on a loop. Are we witnessing the last terrifying moments of someone's life? The news anchor explains that we just don't know.
The devastation is remarkable, yes, but also familiar, and as a result, desensitizing. Recall these similar scenes we saw in Vermont after Hurricane Irene.
Or these shots from Nashville, Tennessee, which in 2010 received the most rainfall in recorded history and saw massive flooding, as a result.
In still shots, you can see kids playing in the water. The stoic American Flag flying as a sign of resilience and strength in the face of tragedy. There are the volunteers helping clean-up wreckage. You can see all of these scenes in this collection from The Big Picture.
These images are all familiar because we have all witnessed, through media or first-hand, so many disasters that it isn't really very shocking to see a home destroyed or a person experiencing the greatest loss of their entire life.
And whether it is a defense mechanism or learned indifference or media over-saturation, somehow we have figured out how to turn off whatever part of our brain that would make us feel the emotions that are justified by such devastating events.
This is a problem because, unfortunately, we are living in a world that is experiencing rapid climate change and has the potential for many, ongoing disasters to occur at once. That's already happening. Environmental disasters related to climate change have already occurred and will continue to occur. There will be more flooding. There will be more fires. There will be more drought. And there will be more sea level rise. All of these things will damage property, disrupt our routines, cost billions of dollars in damage and worst of all, take lives. We can't predict when these things will happen, but it is safe to expect they will.
Knowing that we're already ill-equipped cognitively to emotionally deal with each of these events as isolated stories is worrisome. What's worse still is realizing that we're also failing to connect the dots between so many of these stories to adequately articulate the narrative of climate change. In order for one event, like the Colorado floods, to get enough attention from the press and various aid organizations, it takes focus and even tuning out other events for a moment. But for a sequence of very different, but ultimately related and connected events to get enough attention is even harder, because it requires a broader, longer-term view of the world.
I wish I knew how we could best solve this problem, but I'm open to hearing your ideas in the comments below or on Twitter. I'm just starting Rushkoff's book, but I suspect he'll be getting deep on some of these points later in the book.
IMAGE: LONGMONT, CO - SEPTEMBER 16: An M-923 United States military logistical transportation vehicle lays on its side in a ditch in Longmont, Colorado after being washed away by flood waters as local residents were cleaning up in the wake of heavy flooding on September 16, 2013 in Longmont, Colorado. More than 600 people are unaccounted for and thousands were forced to evacuate after historic flooding devastated communities in Colorado. (Photo by Marc Piscotty/Getty Images)