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.

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