There have been several notable instances of oversharing on the internet of late, the most recent being the UCLA student who posted a rant on YouTube about Asian students in the library.  I think we think of oversharing of this type as a problem of the moment – exacerbated by internet technology and a generation of facebook, twitter and blogger users.  But, as it happens, I’ve come across a few wonderful moments of – if not oversharing per se – then at least someone saying something in what they believed to be a private forum, or a relatively un-public forum, only to have it widely, and regrettably circulated.
My most recent example is from accounts of the minutes of the Cork Poor Relief Society:  The Secretary read a form of application for pecuniary assistance, which was to be forwarded to affluent members of society, requesting subscriptions for the poor.  It was approved and the secretary was requested to note down the names of all parties to whom he had written.

The Secretary said that he had written to the members of the medical profession already
Mr. Burke said that he had applied to Dr. William Lloyd for a subscription, and the doctor stated that he would give no money, but would attend the poor professionally two hours each day, gratuitously, give advice and any medicine he ordered them, he would pay out of his own pocket. – (loud laughter)

 One can imagine, reading the transcript of this meeting the next day, that the members wished they either had not laughed so loudly at the prospect of Dr. Lloyd being generous, or that the correspondent from the Cork Constitution (which paper campaigned against the kind of relief the committee was distributing) might have been more delicate in his note-taking.

On disasters

Ruth Reichl, one of my favorite writers, both on food and otherwise, apparently got into a bit of an internet kerfuffle over a tweet.  Before reading the news out of Japan, Reichl tweetedBasking in sunshine. Gently fried eggs, soft golden yolks. Bright salsa: chiles, onions, tomatoes. Black beans. Warm tortillas. So fine.”  The internet, predictably, responded with a measure of vitriol over how a public personality could bask in sunshine and eggs when tens of thousands of people are dying.  Reichl responded with a measured and thoughtful blog post on what she called “horror and gratitude.”

While this is notable as a primer for the best results of internet scuffles, I was particularly struck by this passage (emphasis mine):

There is no time, ever, in which a terrible disaster is not taking place somewhere on the planet.  And thanks to modern technology, we know all about it almost immediately. As I see it, we have a moral responsibility to respond to those disasters in the best ways that we can. Write letters, send money, do whatever possible to alleviate pain, end suffering and make the world a more just place.”

I think a lot about the intersection between technology and responses to news.  I think that one of the reasons that the Irish famine became such a lightning rod for international interest was that the news technology (ease of printing, speed over land by rail, quick ocean crossings by steam, even faster movement of information by telegraph) made it possible for people as far away from the epicenter of disaster as the Cherokee nation and the Ottoman empire to experience news of suffering in time to do something about it.  I think that Reichl is right – that the rapidity with which we know about something means that we are forced to make quicker and quicker decisions about what we can do.

But I wonder too how that quickness-of-knowing affects the aid environment.  I am absolutely no expert in contemporary humanitarianism, in the running and mechanisms of aid groups or not-for-profits, or on the mechanics of getting aid to the people who need it most.  But it seems to me that since we now have the technology to make everyone a commentator on every crisis (that receives a certain degree of media attention – and that certainly means that many, many are ignored) information might get muddled.  The many stories about the state of Japan’s nuclear reactors circulating on twitter in the wake of the earthquake alone seem to point to an information environment in which rumors and facts become intertwined and confused as quickly as it takes someone to write them.  I am again (as I so often am) reminded of my own research, about the many and conflicting ideas about how to save the potato crop, from soaking the plants in lye to coating them in guano, that we know in retrospect were terribly wrong, and likely detrimental, but which were presented with authority in major newspapers because someone of note had speculated at some point that they might work.

So I guess my question is: is there a way to balance widely available and accessible sources of information (and abilities to share information) with some kind of factual “truth?”  Put another way (since that last sentence wasn’t entirely clear) what do we gain and loose, in a crisis, from hundreds, thousands, millions of competing stories, some of which will necessarily be right and some wrong?  What do we gain and loose by limiting narratives to those that are “correct”?  I am inclined to err on the side of greater freedoms – both to produce and to consume information – but I do wonder how those freedoms play out in crises and disasters.

Childhood favourites and disappointment

Last night was one for retro-relaxation.  After spending the day tying up loose ends on various projects – and getting excited about the issue of Early American Studies that I’m a co-guest editor for – I went home to my Corkonian flat, caught the tail end of The Spy Who Loved Me and put on Back to the Future while making dinner.  Now, I love James Bond, but in order to watch any of the older stuff, and a good portion of the newer movies, I have to suppress the desire to yell at the t.v. about sexism.  Part of watching Bond movies is knowing, and to some degree accepting, that the women will be at best one-dimensional, that there will be at least one point when Bond demands, and promptly receives romantic attention from some woman just ’cause he’s Bond, and that I will probably come to the conclusion, at the end of the movie, that the writers/directors/other people associated with making it did not have much regard for women.

This is the Bond contract.  I do not have a similar mental arrangement with the Back to the Future trilogy, because most of what have retained from watching the movies as a kid is something like: time travel is cool!  Christopher Lloyd is cooky!  Hoverboards!  But watching last night I was kind of shocked by the degree to which the first movie, at least, turns on a unilateral idea of what gendered relationships ought look like.  In the first, less desirable reality the McFly family is lower-middle class, the mother drinks and is (horrors!) not thin, the sister can’t get a boyfriend, and the father is a doormat for The Bully.  We learn that the backstory behind this scenario is that the dad (George) fell out of a tree while spying on naked girls, and that the mom (Loraine) rescues him, decides she loves him, and marries him.  After Marty goes back in time and convinces his dad to be more assertive, which includes rescuing Loraine from attempted rape at the hands of Biff (The Bully), and forcibly removing Loraine from the arms of another man at the dance, the future is better, shinier, richer, and for Loraine, thinner.  So, a message to take home from Back to the Future: passive man+assertive woman=world in which men are crippled by insecurity and walked all over by everyone, including the women in the family.  Assertive man+passive woman=world where the family is rich, the kids are successful, the mom is thin and the sister has lots of dates.

These aren’t surprising gender roles, but a bit dissapointing given my memory of the movie as one of almost universal coolness.  Perhaps the time machine and time traveling dog clouded my recollections.