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“Plus, see photos of the devastation.”

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Image by Maks Karochkin "Plus, see photos of the devastation."

When I first came back to the United States from Japan after the 2011 disaster there, I came into contact with a certain government agency that offered me a stipend in exchange for a presentation on my experience. This was to be at one of its quarterly meetings, which would have included all the disaster management experts in the region. I was tremendously excited and grateful for the opportunity. The few months after the earthquake had been rough for me and my family: we had spent all the money we had coming to America, we were receiving government aid, and I had applied for hundreds of jobs unsuccessfully before the stipend had been offered to me. I was ecstatic that not only could I give back – something I desperately wanted to do – but I would be paid for it.

I met my contact, Susie, one afternoon for over an hour. She had agreed to meet me with her supervisor, a medical doctor named Weisslinger who had left medical practice to work in government disaster management. Susie came to meet me in the lobby of the agency building. She was fairly young but walked with a cane. (“Slipped disk,” she said.) I told them my story – how my family and I had left Fukushima City in the early stages of the nuclear meltdown and kept traveling west, living in our car and at whatever hotels or inns or friends’ or relatives’ places could accommodate us until we managed to procure a way out of the country. (It had been our intention to stay in the United States with my parents until things at the nuclear plant were contained, but things have still not been contained to this day, and an even greater disaster now looms on the horizon as the Japanese people struggle with cleanup and their own inner psychological and political demons.)

Susie and Dr. Weisslinger were impressed with my account, and we agreed that I would give a forty minute presentation detailing my story with twenty minutes of questions to follow. We hammered out some loose guidelines on structure and format, as well as what some of the nuts and bolts would be. I called their attention to an article I had written for Expat Arrivals as well as my Facebook wall – which had been used as a tool to figure out what was really going on and to scrutinize various media sources – as examples of the kinds of things I wanted to talk about. They listened politely as I told them how important social media had been for uncovering misinformation, for staving off panic, and for directing aid to the right places. I emphasized how important the public health establishment had been in the immediate aftermath for providing clean water and food, shelter, and warm blankets. We agreed to meet four weeks later. At that time I would present a rough draft. In the meantime, they told me, they would email me details of what kind of stipend they could offer.

“One more thing,” Dr Weisslinger asked. “Do you have any pictures?”

***

My title is taken from a Daily Beast offering, a gallery where the viewer can click through twenty or so images of the destruction wrought by Super Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. Such a format, like that of the “listicle”, is designed to maximize a particular site’s pageviews while minimizing its bounce rate. This ensures advertisers that not only do a large number of visitors come to a particular site but that they stay and view multiple pages. Combine this format with so-called disaster porn and you just may have one of the most lucrative offerings on the Internet. The titular gallery in this case includes images of crowds of Filipino refugees, looting, aerial and ground views of the destruction, thousand-yard stares, displaced and isolated children, and, of course, dead bodies.

I had no such images from Japan. Actually, I had taken a few pictures: earthquake-ravaged buildings, flooded streets, the collapsed roof of the local supermarket – pretty unexciting stuff as far as disaster media go. But as soon as I turned my lens towards human subjects – my neighbors – I found myself compelled to stop filming. There was something dehumanizing about the act of filming their suffering as a fly on the wall that disturbed me. Nevertheless, on the whole, I do not condemn the documentation of natural disasters and human suffering. In fact, I believe that disaster porn, on top of compelling the comfortably distant to volunteer time or donate money, especially to uniquely impoverished, unfortunate, and forgotten regions, can serve as a modern, secular memento mori – secular in that it compels us not to recourse to preparation for the afterlife but to making this world a better place. Despite my desire to compel the world to help Japan, I just could not photograph children bathing in brown water or old men who could barely walk standing for hours in lines for rations. I had taken no such images from Japan, but I felt I had something to offer Dr. Weisslinger anyways. I believed that my experience carried its own utility.

In the four intervening weeks between meetings, my family’s financial situation continued to worsen, and I heard nothing about the promised stipend. After pounding pavement for a week, I finally procured a job as a bus boy (bus man, I would later joke), and this provided my family with some relief. When I went in to meet again with Susie and Dr. Weisslinger, I found that Susie was on medical leave and that I would be meeting with Dr. Weisslinger and an intern, who had not been present for the first meeting. The atmosphere this time was decidedly different, and what happened next I still cannot make any sense of. I showed my presentation to Dr. Weisslinger, who started to become visibly upset. After five minutes, she stopped me.

“Chris, you need to leave.”

I stared, confused. “What?” I finally asked.

“Get out.” Dr Weisslinger said and pointed to the door.

A security guard escorted me out of the building. To this day I am still not sure what I did wrong: whether it was my insistence on the crucial role of social media at informing people, an idea that may have been met with some resistance by the official message-makers; whether Dr. Weisslinger had only wanted to use me for whatever disaster porn she assumed I had and felt betrayed that I brought none; or whether I had just happened to stumble upon some internal institutional dysfunction that had nothing to do with me or what I could or could not offer. At that time and for a long time afterwards, I felt incredibly helpless. But the truth I have since been able to take away from the whole situation is that, when bad things happen across the globe, we can each play a role to help make them better.

I struggled for some time after the incident with “Dr. Weisslinger” trying to find my role. I started a charity for Japan relief, which has made some notable contributions; but I have not had the time or resources to pour as much into it as I would have liked. I have struggled finding an efficacious direction for it, and I largely consider it a failure. As much as I wanted to share the wisdom I gleaned from Fukushima with the establishment, I found they were unwilling to listen. As much as I now want to board a plane to the Philippines and start tramping through Leyte handing out warm blankets and clean bottled water and treating infections, I know I can’t do that. Right now, I can keep working and learning, I can keep hoping that someday I actually can go to places like the Philippines and do more than just be in the way. And thankfully, now that my family has dug itself out of the financial hole that Fukushima put us in, I can do things like donate to UNICEF. (I can also write about donating to UNICEF. If everyone reading this article clicks on the link above and donates ten dollars, is that not more helpful than what goes on behind closed doors at government agencies?)

I called my wife today at lunch and told her how I wanted to get on a plane to the Philippines. “Remember,” she told me. “Five years from now, ten years from now, you will have another opportunity to help out. There will be another disaster, and maybe each time you’ll be able to do a little bit better than the time before.”

Image by Maks Karochkin "Plus, see photos of the devastation."

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31 thoughts on ““Plus, see photos of the devastation.”

    • Putting something together is definitely on my list of things I need to do (a long list, admittedly). If you’re interested, look at my Facebook wall (we’re friends, I believe) from March 11, 2011. You’ll discover a general trend of us figuring out what’s going on well in advance of the media (and with far more accuracy). At first I was thinking that book format would be best for everything, then the offer of a presentation came up and that actually made more sense to me, but now I’m thinking of making a multimedia presentation, kind of like a documentary, that touches on exactly how social media was beneficial in my case and how I believe it can be beneficial in the future.

      FWIW, I don’t think there is anything holding social media back from being the ideal outlet for dissemination of information. If information exists, it will be filtered and disseminated via social media faster and more accurately than any other method. The key is coordinating the official disaster supply response – the “matter” response – with the information response – the “electromagnetic” response that now exists because of the Internet.

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  1. Thanks for showing a picture of the Philippines at their best, and not taking lurid pictures of Japan at its worst. This post is a great reminder of the importance of dignity.

    You should press forward with your presentation anyway. Have it handy and be able to present it. People will be interested. I know I am.

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    • More likely Chris’ presentation didn’t line up with the “official point of view”, was most likely opposite of that, and the guy decided then and there that punt as it didn’t serve to further the ends of the bureauracy.

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      • You’re likely correct and it’s a stupid and shortsighted response. A number of public agencies–police departments and such–have figured out how to use social media to efficiently disseminate information in an emergency situation.

        Even so, I just don’t understand the attitude she displayed. I mean, if she thought his presentation wasn’t appropriate for some reason, then fine. But why not be at least polite about it?

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  2. I work with a lot of kids from the Philippines here in Tokyo. A huge chunk of their country was creamed, and there’s still no way to get much information about people there. I think about my own anxiety here, looking on from afar during 9/11, Katrina, and various Gulf Coast hurricanes and hoping to God not to hear the worst, and just try not to say anything stupid, just tell them, you know, I’m pulling for you guys.

    I would also like to see that presentation. Social media turned out to be a godsend after the earthquake—where to get stuff, who’s nearby if you’re stranded, who’s okay but needs water, baby food, etc. I would have predicted a moronic inferno, an avalanche of stupid and harmful jabbering, especially from us gringos here, but people held it together for the most part.

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  3. What a fascinating but baffling story? I share your confusion at Weisslinger’s astonishing rudeness. Surely it couldn’t have been about the lack of pictures could it? If it was kudos on taking the high road.

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  4. Not to make an ideological point, and certainly not to critique the critical role of government in responding to crises like this, but we had a brief discussion a day or two ago about spontaneous (or emergent) order. Chris’s description of the importance of social media for “for uncovering misinformation, for staving off panic, and for directing aid to the right places,” is actually a perfect example of emergent order and how incredibly powerful it often is. In an ideal disaster response situation both government (top-down) order and emergent (bottom-up) order work well well together, responding to each other while each fulfilling the different types of roles to which they are best suited.

    I wonder about the level of social media penetration, and its consequent effectiveness, in a poorer nation like the Philippines, as compared to a highly developed country like Japan. How many lives might be saved simply by having more Facebook accounts? How many lives in New Orleans might have been saved if Hurricane Katrina had struck just a few years later?

    I’m pretty anti-social media myself. I don’t get Twitter and have no interest in participating, I killed my Facebook page a few years back because I never used it, etc. But Chris makes me realize that underlying all the mindless chatter that permeates social media, we’ve collectively–without intending to–created a powerful tool for aiding in crisis response. It’s a tool that people will not have to rediscover, or search out, or figure out how to use when crisis strikes, because it’s such an integral part of their daily lives that they will use it automatically, without a moment’s hesitation.

    How awesome is that? Am I behind the curve on recognizing this, or is this something we’re all just about to start recognizing?

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      • That only demonstrates your own proclivity of thought.
        ‘Order’ is a matter of degrees, and need not imply a semblance of wholeness.
        Like the Empire State Building was still the Empire State Building while it was under construction.
        ‘Order,’ like ‘Building,’ can be taken two ways.
        Rather than suspend belief to await confirmation, you take the leap.
        Nothing wrong with that, in itself.
        But better to be mindful of those not leaping so in your freefall.

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      • Will,
        I think my discomfort stems from this being merely a facet of emergent behavior,
        one in which the rules are structured so as to give an optimal strategy.

        James,
        I wonder if you couldn’t get some insight by using some genetic propagation algorithms?
        You could reasonably easily establish the perceived “importance/weight” of a particular meme. Naturally you’d have to control for immediacy (new info gets passed more than old, even if it’s of relatively low worth)…
        And, perhaps, you have certain people who are “good propagators” — either because
        they bridge friend-networks, or because they’re trusted, etc.

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      • I’m disliking the term “emergent order” honestly.

        By the way, I didn’t make that up. It’s a well-established term in both biology and among those who call themselves complexity theorists, and a lot of economists who are more familiar with the term spontaneous order are–I think–starting to use it as well.

        Sometimes you just gotta go with the flow, if nor no other reason than so that everyone knows what the hell you’re referring to, and you don’t end up like the two bird fanciers who were arguing over whether a quarrion or a cockatiel is the best pet.

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    • Social networks are already powerful; social *media* are just and only that – media that strengthen and enhance the communicative links in social networks. We err to problematize social media much more than that. How powerful was the telegraph and then telephone in strengthening social network (and institutional/top-down, for that matter) connectivity across great or even vast distances? Twitter is little more than a free (for now), individual telegraph system wherein the messages are public by default, with a private channel always available between any users who have established a link with each other (i.e. “Follow” each other). It’s pretty much that simple. It’s an old-fangled style of communication made semi-universal on a newfangled platform. Of course it’s a power multiplier in social networking. The message format, which people seem to get so hung up on, isn’t what defines the character and power and utility of the medium, nor what gets communicated through it: what defines that is its well-suitedness to bringing social network connectivity up to the speed at which life is lived in this era (even in the Philippines). Complex information is shared, and more to the point developed, via iteration rather than exposition. Perhaps a certain way of apprehending conceptual complexity is lost in that environment; perhaps other ways are gained.

      I’ll stop now. Sorry, I don’t mean to pile on. But yes, this is what the crazy prophets have been saying all along. Calling Cairo 2011 the “Twitter Revolution” (which I think some people did) was certainly massively hyperbolic and I thought it was stupid at the time (which before I was quite so converted, though after I had put my feet in the water), but it wasn’t without any basis in reality.

      I have less use for Facebook. If I want to know what games my friends are playing with their kids in the back yard, I’ll arrange to go over for a visit or pick up the phone. Twitter’s a different animal, IMO. I’m not totally sure why Facebook didn’t become what Twitter is, but it didn’t. I suspect it has to do both with design and with the the nature of the social networks it evolved to serve.

      This is not a pitch, btw. It’s a description. Twitter can absolutely just not be any given person’s thing, but it is what it is.

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      • Social networks are already powerful; social *media* are just and only that – media that strengthen and enhance the communicative links in social networks….Of course it’s a power multiplier in social networking.

        I think you hit the nail on the head. Well said.

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    • I see social media has beening an auxurillary to the government when it comes to disasters rather than a displacement. What it does is inable quick information gathering on what happened where and who needs what and hopefully keep things as calm as possible. You still an organization that could marshall manpower and direct aid to the affected areas and keep law and order if things get out of hand.

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    • One practical point to consider: Have you seen pictures of Taclindo [sp?]? I would be amazed if the cell network survived.

      Perhaps this is a job for “disaster IT”. Go in there and quickly deploy a mesh network of portable battery-powered/solar cell nodes and wi-fi hotspots.

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    • You’re not behind the curve, maybe a little bit ahead of it. I’ve been talking to a friend who does disaster management and relief work as a specialty, and we’ve been tossing around ideas of how to tap the Austin startup/IT community to refining the tools on the upper end, so that the top-down management can better interface with the bottom up efforts.

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  5. This is actually a pretty big field of research in the IS/T community.

    Prior to 2000, almost all of the IS/T research in disasters was “we built this information system for this group of formal first responders”. Then we got “we built these information systems so that this formal group of first responder’s information system could talk to this other group’s information system”. Then social media exploded, and you see a lot of papers now about emergent/ad hoc social media responses to large and small scale disasters.

    I’m working on bridging the gap, myself.

    I really, really would like to see your presentation, Christopher.

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