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Tweets, Tsunamis and the Toll on Common Memory

The pictures from Japan are nothing short of incredible. Unprecedented footage made its way through television and Internet news organizations almost as quickly as the wall of water that pushed through to the mainland. Viewers were left wondering whether they were watching captured footage or stock of an upcoming  Hollywood summer blockbuster.

While watching the live footage around 10:49 PST,  the wall of water had just made landfall and distributed debris over an airport. News captured the carnage not just of property – but like catastrophes in the past – kept the video rolling to witness the human toll as well.

Copy of The Great Wave at Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The next morning, as an East Coaster with an immense, usually irrational, fear of tidal waves, I made my way to the Santa Monica bluff to see a tsunami for myself. My intention was twofold: To sort of put to rest the destruction and see live-news coverage in the making. Prior to my mile-journey to the bluff, I’d been watching the West Coast coverage as reporters with backdrops of a placid ocean and bystanders awaited the wave from a safe distance.

Watching the Pacific Ocean from Southern California – you wouldn’t have known anything happened 5,000 miles and a world away. Towns flattened, thousands missing and now a nuclear disaster that could only be a heart-wrenching trifecta of the perfect catastrophe. In Southern California, a little blip on the radar – which is good news – until an individual turned to media outlets varying from television, Twitter, or reposted to Facebook. Photos via MSNBC

Now the recurring footage loop that is the cable news cycle has edited out the worst of the captured human destruction. As the footage loop continues, our memories of the disaster become transposed into an intangible sense of anguish. What do these disasters and the recurring footage do to the psyche of those who repeatedly witness them? 9-11 provides multiple studies of the effect of ‘eye-witnesses’ through the varied screens of technology. The destruction of Hurricane Katrina offers similar images of human suffering during past disasters. New questions concerning the effect wired parents and the news cycle on children and their fears arise.

The loss of human life, edited out from these scenes, creates a common memory. What will we learn from this memory? Will we learn about the power of natural forces, of unforeseen anomalies, the immense risk of nuclear energy? Maybe it’s too early in the news cycle to try to figure out ‘what this all means’ and how we move forward with the best possible lesson – if a lesson is even possible?

As the nuclear reactors are consequentially destroyed due to the earthquake, coverage has shifted. The world is still in shock, but one thing the 24-hour news cycle doesn’t have tolerance for the a mourning period. As Japan is a country that was probably best prepared for a disaster such as this, we can’t simply say, “Oh, look at those poor people in that poor country.” Will it be another bolster to rally around a foreign flag or publicity stunt by celebrities of the moment? So, do we digest these images like a morning breakfast on-the-go, or do we acknowledge the destruction, lack of control and ask more of human nature?

Posted under: Blog, Technology & Society
Lauren Barnett

About Lauren Barnett

Lauren graduated from the University of North Carolina at Asheville in 2008 with a BA in Mass Communication. Upon graduation, and at the suggestion of a friend, she moved to Philadelphia to explore the 'real world' outside of academia. Ousting herself out of her comfort zone and plopping herself in the middle of a diverse city with thriving culture, she found work in a pizza restaurant, which was quickly followed by a return to the academic world, with a position on a peer-reviewed science journal. Simultaneously, Lauren worked closely with a youth literacy, after-school program, participating in the local art scene, hoping to one-day return to an academic setting separate from images of dissected nude mice. As a first year student in the CCT program, Lauren's interest currently include from net neutrality, education and technology, and the new role of journalism in the era of the Internet.

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