Tuned In

A Disaster We Can't Unsee

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It has become a cliché by now to declare that any awful event is “the first YouTube disaster,” “the coming of age of Twitter,” “the desktop-video tragedy,” &c. But clichés are sometimes true, and the endless supply of videos coming from the earthquake and tsunami in Japan have had an overwhelming, end of days feel to them.

Unlike a plane crash, the tsunami was an event whose effects were (and are) ongoing. Unlike disasters like the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, which affected a wide range of areas, from remote settlements to tourist centers, the Japan quake hit an affluent, technology-saturated country with millions of people able to document their experience at first hand. And, of course, unlike many past tragedies, this one happened at a time when mobile technology and social media services allow for instant publishing, filtering and dissemination of the news.

So when tsunami floodwaters sweep a village away, we see it. A nuclear power plant explodes, we see it.

That the images from the quake, tsunami and nuclear disaster are playing endlessly on TV news is unsurprising. Nor is it inappropriate—specific coverage may be alarmist or questionable or even insipid, but given that this is a catastrophe that is still very much in process, this is one case where more or less wall-to-wall coverage seems appropriate.

What’s really striking, though—and heartbreaking, and in some strange way inspiring—is the amount of video we’re seeing from people who were in the midst of the chaos: people turning cameras on the surging waves even as they fled, stopping to record flood waters sweeping cars away, pausing from high ground which seems as though it may not be quite high enough to show the seas reclaiming the land.

There is probably a cynical or depressing way of looking at this phenomenon of so many people hitting Record even as they’re in the middle of danger: something about the lure of attention outweighing safety, or how the mediated experience has overwhelmed reality. To me, though, it’s a sign of something more admirable, and essential to humans: the urge to document one’s life and the life around you, in the service of a larger community and memories that will outlive you.

I didn’t live through the tsunami, and I can’t speak to the reasons that everyone turned a camera on it. But I suspect that a major reason it that—just as something kicks in that causes people to risk their lives to save someone else—there is some trigger in our subconscious that recognizes when we’re in the presence of an event that is greater than ourselves. You can look at self-documenting as something vain and egocentric, but it just as easily is selfless and community-minded: the recognition that you are part of a larger world, and that you have some responsibility when you have the chance to be one eye of that billion-eyed global observer.

I can’t say if it helps more than it hurts, if ultimately it all becomes numbing or if it inspires help and a sense of community. But as easy as it is to make fun of the narcissism of the world’s self-documenters on ordinary days, on extraordinary days, there’s something to be said for being able to see the world, literally, as someone else saw it—however horrible what they saw was.