Friday, April 8, 2011

Virtual Victims: PTSD brought to you in HD

Photo by christiancarron2000@flickr
Sometimes, information is a bitch.  Consider the young woman living in an isolated and primitive culture, media-blind and blissfully ignorant of the atrocities, natural and man-made, that afflict humankind.  She and her kin may not know that last month, Mother Nature shrugged off the coast of Japan, killing thousands and setting up a series of calamities that are only just now being eclipsed in the U.S. news by coverage of violent uprisings in the Middle East and the U.S. House of Representatives.

The entire planet shifted on its axis and began spinning faster under her feet while she slept, cared for her family, or foraged for food.  We do not suggest that she is not well acquainted with death and suffering, but might we envy her, at least for a moment, that her retinas are not scarred forever by live television images of fellow humans running desperately and pointlessly ahead of a towering wave of water, mud, and body-grinding debris?  May we not consider her fortunate not to have fretted for days over the sacrifices of brave humans offering themselves to death or future disease to prevent a nuclear catastrophe?  Certainly, she will have challenges in her life that we are just as happy to avoid, but, only for a moment, allow us to revel vicariously in her ignorance of exactly how likely our efforts to live comfortably are working against our civilizations' ability to survive at all.  If ignorance is bliss, we'd like a bowl of it about now please.

c.2010 University of Hawai'i at Manoa Click to animate.
Too late.  Before we could get our heads safely under the sand, we ran across this study of the fate of all that debris that was sucked off the coastal plain of Sendai by the tsunami that flooded the reactors, that demolished the cities, that killed all the people, and made us afraid of what Jack built.  Through the miracle of our technology we witnessed in real time the terrible wave pushing kilometers inland, carrying boats, cars, houses, and people with it.  When it finally receded, it had ground civilization into flotsam bobbing in the newly irradiated currents of the Pacific Ocean.

Oceanographic studies show us that miles of debris, the stuff that was once towns and people, will circumnavigate the Pacific, depositing samples along the U.S. coastline and Hawaii over the next few years before joining the monstrous, swirling mass of refuse in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch where the bits that don't sink or degrade will slowly spin for generations in what has become the world's largest cesspool.

When these dislocated vestiges of the people and places of Sendai finally join the swirling refuse of the GPGP, they will create a long-lasting, and humbling, maritime memorial to humankind's impotence in the face of the Earth's natural forces.

Mt. Rainier, photo by.majorsteel25@Flickr
While we mourn the enormous loss of life, the ongoing misery of hundreds of thousands of unhomed Japanese, and the devastation to land and aquatic habitats, seeing and hearing it happen forces us to consider the implications for other areas where humans have settled in hazardous areas.  In the U.S., San Francisco is widely considered to be living on geologically borrowed time.  Seattle, Tacoma, and nearby communities in the Pacific Northwest are known to have been buried by lahars and mudflows throughout their history and are surrounded by unstable peaks that promise a future catastrophe.  Of course, we have read about these things for years, but watching entire towns wiped off the face of the planet adds realism to what was, before, only an abstract threat.

c. *Hiro@flickr
It is a well worn trope that telecommunications technology is shrinking the planet, and this is poignantly demonstrated when we collectively experience others' tragedies on big, high-definition screens in Dolby Digital Surround Sound as they unfold.  While it is clearly not the same as being there, the sights and sounds we experience are real enough to stimulate a vicarious portion of the victims' fear and suffering that can transform us into indirect, or virtual victims of the event.  Of course, there can be no comparison between the suffering of on-the-scene victims and virtual victims who only observe the tragedy from a distance.  But some research indicates that watching others experience traumatic events on television can induce symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder in some people.

Is technology's ability to bring us up-close-and-personal with human tragedy a boon to humanity that increases empathy and results in increased caring behavior?  As the Haitian earthquake tragedy unfolded on our televisions and computers, cell-phone companies provided a quick and convenient way to donate to the American Red Cross via the cell phones we already had in our hands.  The one-two punch of experiencing Haitians' suffering with our eyes and ears, and being able to help by literally lifting our fingers, resulted in a record-breaking level of cash donations.

c. Nick UT/AP
Human-created tragedies spark outrage when described by rich media like film and television.  President Lyndon Johnson admitted that the VietNam war was forced to an early close by the filmed images of bombing, bloody bodies, and injured young men that  played on the television news programs each night.  For the first time in history, civilians experienced en masse a measure of the brutal reality of war in their living rooms, often while eating dinner.  These images hit Americans viscerally and motivated millions to oppose the war openly and violently.  It comes as no surprise that administrations afterwards sought to carefully control the media coverage of future wars, especially the most powerful images that might inflame Americans' passions, and spark a repeat of the Vietnam era war protests.

But how much can we take?  It seems that we are sipping from a fire hose of human suffering these days, so we cannot blame anyone who is tempted to turn away and focus on the needs of their own tribe.  However, we are (sometimes reluctantly) forced to admit that as the richness of media has improved over the last fifty years, our affinity with other humans seems to have increased... especially humans we only encounter through the lens of media.  While it seems to us that people have less patience with each other they know, we had no trouble at all cheering the Poles as they grasped democracy. We saw their leader, Lech Walesa, as a courageous underdog as he heroically challenged communist leaders to create the Soviet bloc's first independent trade union.  Images of useless death and the televised ramblings of clueless leadership stirred us to rally against a pointless and poorly-executed war in Indochina.  We cried as we watched East and West Berliners tear down a wall between their countries.  The suffering and joy we observed on television became our suffering and joy.

And yet... it seems to us that we are trading the richness of immediate relationships with those we can only experience through the compressed and filtered experiences that media is restricted to.  It is as if the media, whether it be television, video-conferencing, email, or texting, relieves us of the pressure of communicating on all cylinders.  Our Uncle Bob had a trick that comes to mind.  When the conversation around was disagreeable to him, he stuck one finger to his ear and turned off his hearing aid.  The on/off button on our devices can perform the same function... do we prefer relationships we can control in this way?

Certainly, ignorance provides opportunities for bliss and we have become accustomed to seeking bliss.  However, islands of bliss in a sea of suffering can not survive forever.  Perhaps we are better off experiencing as much of the full spectrum of the human experience as we can through face-to-face experiences when we can, and through technology-based media when we must.  Knowing, and feeling, what is happening to those around us allows, and motivates, us to push the world in more humane directions.

Information can be a real bitch when it removes our excuses to get off of our collective asses and act.  Rich information from immediate and intimate contact can be a bitch because there is no on/off switch for it.   Aint it a bitch?

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