The Digital Deluge and the Crowding Out of History

Listening to myself complain about the lack of precipitation that we have experienced here in Lebanon this year, made me realise that I, personally, have very little data to go one when it comes to figuring out whether this is normal, catastrophic, a bit odd or a sign of the imminent global climate apocalypse. Not only do I have very little information from personal experience given my youthfulness and the few years I have lived here, but I’ve come to realise that no one seems to have much personal data. My friend the mountain guide who spends almost every day hiking the snowy slopes, does not recall that last year saw extremely heavy snowfall (I have photographic evidence myself). He told me that this was the second year with a dry winter in a row. Nor do historical databases help all that much. Outside of a few advanced countries, weather records are sparsely populated.

I’ve also noticed that, due to the internet, Facebook and my globally located family, I now have an unreasonably large awareness of the fact that Brooklyn is extremely cold with a lot of snow, London has been rainy but not very cold, Megeve had poor snowfall in December, there is a huge drought in the Western United States…and that is just the trivia bubbling on the top of my mind right now.

It dawned on me that in the dense cloud of so called “information” that we are surrounded by, that we inhale and exhale whether we are aware of it or not, all the weather reporting is basically, like almost everything on social media or in the daily news, just entertainment and distraction. After all, I would wager that 90% of what is written in the New York times has little or no impact on the lives of most New Yorkers, and even less of an impact on those of its 224,000 international readers. Yet, we read, yes I do too, and are driven to read by some part of our brains that must have evolved to look at rare and strange events in order to glean information that would aid in our survival at some point in the future. I expect that it must be useful for an animal to take a strong imprint in his mind of some unusual or dangerous situation and keep mental notes of how to survive it. A fascination with bad outcomes in the interest of survival might explain why people rubberneck at road accidents.

I’ll admit to a healthy interest in the grotesque and the unusual, a normal amount of fascination. I walked over to the site of the bomb that killed Mohammed Chatah. It was striking how much less dramatic the scene was in real life than on TV. On TV the camera magnified the flames, the traces of human injury (blood on the sidewalk for example) and, by constantly panning and zooming, the television camera man imparted a dynamism and action to the images of destruction that, in reality were absent. If anything, the scene of the crime was preternaturally calm. The whole neighbourhood had been barred to cars. The few pedestrians and onlookers were silent in what may have been reverence for the dead or awe at the amount of broken things. The security services moved in a slow and methodical fashion, the last of the injured, dying or dead had long departed the area. There was no longer any urgency. In fact by being at the scene I intuitively knew that there was not much to learn. I suppose the most one could have concluded is that it is good to have laminated glass in Beirut.

Watching the same scene on television, I had reached different conclusions. Honda CRVs, especially if gold coloured, signal danger. One should sit far away from windows. Try not to be around politicians. Instead of the inherent unpredictability and randomness coming to the fore of my thoughts, instead of that scene of calm teaching me that the explosion was a tiny, momentary disturbance, I learned those false lessons.

What does this have to do with weather or the news. There is, to start, the difference between the lived event and the news portrayal. For most people the dramatic floods of Southern England have amounted to a long series of rainy days. Nothing more dramatic than that. For most people the explosion that killed Chatah was absolutely a non-event as directly experienced. Less of an event than the even the almost unnoticeable rainy day.

Moreover, what is the significance of the flood or the bomb? What lessons can we learn? I would posit that we can learn nothing whatsoever. In fact we can unlearn, that is, crowd out real lessons and intelligence with noise.

Before the days of the printing press, stories were kept alive either through manual reproduction or the oral tradition. In all cases, the only way for a story to enter the culture and spread was for it to crowd out another story on the storyteller’s calendar or, likewise, to take the scribe’s priority away from something he deemed less interesting. Is it any wonder that what survives from the Greeks, the Romans and the Arabs of millennia ago are only a few works of such essential importance that we our culture still refers to them? Who has not heard of Plato, Archimedes, Ibn Sina, Homer or Pythagorus? Who, in 1000 years, will even know that Harry Potter existed? There was, I suppose, much more attention for far fewer entertainment resources. There was, undoubtedly, a lot more boredom. A world not only devoid of television, but of books was normal for most of human civilisation.

Today we are not bored, but overwhelmed. There is  no possibility of keeping up. Think that until 1500 it was possible for a single person to have read every book ever published. It was literally possible for one person to have at least browsed all recorded human thought.Today there are 2.2 MILLION books published annually. But even without reading a single one, I could spend my life distracted on Facebook or youtube. What are the implications?

Many I guess, but the one that really struck me was that we, individual humans, are losing touch with reality. Perhaps two hundred years ago, weather related cataclysms would have been recounted in stories told from one generation to the next. The story of Noah’s ark and the great flood probably started that way. A person might be told about some enormous event that happened three or four generations ago where he lived. But he would never hear anything about the places he did not live. And so he would have a flawed, impressionistic but somehow reasonable frame of reference for the place he lived, a set of guidelines for what was extreme and what was not. Today, I know about all the extreme things happening all around the world right now but I know zilch about where I live. Why would I want to listen to a story about some snowstorm in 1920, 1942 or 1950 (that is when Wikipedia says Lebanon had it’s worst snowstorms, however it also says ‘reference needed’) when I can hear about some actual thing happening right now in Baluchistan, or even better, a place I care about like New York! And told with a lot of explanation points and zoom shots, and dramatic voice overs!

Does it matter? Ask the (ex) residents of Fukushima. Despite local lore that mentioned at least three catastrophic Tsunamis, and despite records detailing many facts about those tsunamis and the damage caused, the site at Fukushima was chosen, lowered (yes, they dug 20m down to site the reactor closer to the sea) and then designed to withstand a 3-6m wave even though the stories all told of 10-15m waves.Of course how seriously should the designers of the plant taken the locals: their story was about something that happened in 1677.

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