Blogs and the tsunami

I thought John Schwartz’s article in the NYT: “Myths Run Wild in Blog Tsunami Debate” was going to be the inevitable snow job following on from some fairly positive coverage of the role of bogs in the disaster. And it certainly starts that way.

But the blogosphere’s tendency toward crackpot theorizing and political smack down could not be suppressed for long.

“It’s so much of what they feed on, so much of what they are,” said James Surowiecki, the author of “The Wisdom of Crowds.”

However Schwartz then moves into a really interesting discussion about the “self correcting” nature of blogs through the direct comments and feedback to posts.

Online discussion can evolve toward truth, said Clay Shirky, an adjunct professor in the interactive telecommunications program at New York University and a blogger. One result is a process that can be more reliable than many new media, where corrections are often late and small, if they appear at all.

Dr. Shirky said the key to reasonable discussion was to get beyond flames and the “echo chamber” effect of like-minded people simply reinforcing the opinions of one another and to let the self-correcting mechanisms do their job in a civil way. “You hope the echo chamber effect and the fact-checking effect will balance out into a better and more nuanced set of narratives, and a more rigorously checked set of facts,” he said. But in such a sharply contentious world, “The risk is it will largely divide itself into competing narratives where what even constitutes a fact is different in different camps.”

On a completely different level and left unanalysed are the “myths” of Schwartz’s title. He quotes from posts on www.democraticunderground.com:

“Since we know that the atmosphere has become contaminated by all the atomic testing, space stuff, electronic stuff, earth pollutants, etc., is it logical to wonder if: Perhaps the ‘bones’ of our earth where this earthquake spawned have also been affected?”

The cause of the earthquake and resulting killer wave, the writer said, could be the war in Iraq. “You know, we’ve exploded many millions of tons of ordnance upon this poor planet,” the writer said. “All that ‘shock and awe’ stuff we’ve just dumped onto the Asian part of this earth – could we have fractured something? Perhaps the earth was just reacting to something that man has done to injure it. The earth is organic, you know. It can be hurt.”

While Schwartz and his commentators are interested in the truth or otherwise of these comments it would be more interesting to ask what the comments actually reveal. I think the posts are indicative of several prevalent myths – and here I use the term not as Schwartz does as a synonym for misconception but as meaning ritual story or narrative belief.

Just as many of the news stories about the disaster have emphasised the connectedness of the world in a time of tragedy these posts arise out of a similar metaphysics of connectedness. However they simultaneously appeal to a range of apocalyptic beliefs about the environment, the destructiveness of “man” and the covert or irresponsible actions of “government”. They are indicative of what Timothy Melley has called “agency panic” in the face of seemingly expanding conspiratorial actors (I have posted about this on my other blog).

It is interesting to note also that the post is a series of questions and tentative propositions (“could we have fractured something? Perhaps the earth was just reacting”). Although it seems that the current disaster is unrelated to any of the events mentioned in the democratic underground post, the tentatively expressed underlying belief system, that human actions have environmental consequences and that we are all connected through this consequential chain, is by no means a misconception even in scientific terms.

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