Crisis Info / Info Crisis

March 13, 2011

“OH, NO,” I shouted when I heard on NPR Friday morning about the 8.9 earthquake that hit Japan.

Less than an hour later, still feeling shaky, I was blatantly violating my rule against computers in class. We had a guest speaker that day, and I think it’s pretty rude to be staring at your computer screen when a guest has gone to the trouble to come to your class.1 Nevertheless, I could not tear my eyes away from my laptop screen.

It was a crisis and I wanted information about it. But with all the information pouring in—both about Japan and about all the things, all day, that other people kept expecting me to be focusing on that were not Japan—I was also in an information crisis.

Let’s flash back to when I heard the news on NPR. At first, as they hadn’t given a location, I immediately assumed that it was the Great Tokai Earthquake that they’ve been (and are still) waiting for, and that was always in the back of my mind when I lived in Aichi Prefecture, in Tokai.

I considered skipping class. I know too many people in Tokai and I would have been too anxious and upset to learn anything. My Japanese home prefecture of Shiga is also near Tokai and would have been badly affected. I thought back to the yearly earthquake drills that we had at my base school, where we would file out on to the athletic fields and then watch the kids stand in the hot sun while kyoto-sensei (that is, the vice principal) stood in front of us and gave us a long lecture on plate tectonics. After this, the kids and teachers all liked to joke (in that morbid way people joke about something because the reality is actually quite frightening) that since our school building was built almost a hundred years ago—before Japan became the world leader in amazing swaying earthquake-resistant buildings—that it was going to collapse right on top of them when the Big One hit.

So, I was close to tears thinking that this might have happened; NPR still wasn’t giving place names, so I ran for my computer and pulled up the New York Times, where found out there that it was in Miyagi Prefecture, in northeast Japan and quite far from where I have lived.

Oh. Okay. Deep breath. The high schools at which I worked are still standing. Nagoya wasn’t leveled. The crisis’s distance to me had receded a level. This started to sink in. That was when I put my computer in my bag and proceeded with preparations for class.

But my circle of empathy was still in flux. Yes, the high schools in my Japanese hometown are still standing, but now that I’ve pictured them falling down, it’s too easy to transfer that image to strangers in Miyagi. Just because I don’t know those people doesn’t mean their suffering doesn’t bother me.2 So I was still quite distracted. Some commentators were saying that we are simultaneously horrified and fascinated and that’s why we can’t tear ourselves away from the news—especially pictures and videos. That wasn’t the case for me this time. It has been plenty of other times, but this time, it was more of an urgent need to know what was going on there because in my mind I have some kind of connection to this place, and therefore I need to know what is happening there.

Even when I don’t really need to know. I mean, it wasn’t like knowing anything was going to help anyone. But I still felt the compulsive need for information. I don’t know if other people would have the same sort of residual emotion, but I still felt alarmed enough in that more inner circle of empathy, now enlarged to make room for the Tohoku and Kanto regions along with Kansai and Tokai, that I still had a strong compulsion to get all the information I could, even after I had confirmed that most people I know in Japan were okay (you could feel the quake where I lived, but it wouldn’t even have been strong enough to cause alarm until you turned on the news) and found information that minimized my worry about the rest.

So being in class still did not work well. My plan to compromise by attending lecture but keeping an eye on my laptop was thwarted when we were told to break up into groups—and not with the people sitting near us. I left my laptop at my original seat, thinking that in 5-10 minutes we could move back; an hour later, we were still sitting with our groups.

The separation from my computer was causing me physical distress. This only became worse when our professor decided to check on the news herself while we discussed the assignment; her computer was still connected to the projector announcing the tsunami to the entire class.

ARGHHHHHHHHHHH GIVE ME MY LAPTOP! I NEED TO STEER THE COMPUTER! I NEED INFORMAAAAAAATION!!!

Excuse the TMI-nature (haha) of this detail, but I also really needed a bathroom break at this point, but if she had given us a break, I would have gone first to my computer. Not kidding. The physical stress from tension that I was experiencing by not being allowed to tap into the information stream that my Millennial brain has come to expect in a crisis was more pressing than having to pee.

This is definitely not a situation in which I can press myself or others to stick to an information diet. When you are in a crisis—even when it doesn’t directly, physically have an impact on you; even when it’s just some connection in your mind insisting that this is within your inner circles of empathy—it is far too much to ask that someone be rational about the information consumption.3 But in our constantly-connected culture, since the information is there, we are going to go for it.

So I gave myself a pass, though I felt really rude. As my skin and hair are too light, our presenter wouldn’t have known that I had any reason to be personally concerned about the tragedy that everyone was talking about. I want to write to him to apologize for being so rude. (He would have seen me as being quite uninterested in his talk; but on the contrary, it was quite interesting and I definitely wouldn’t have been on Facebook on a normal day!)

But I wonder what we can do to help ourselves handle the stream of information that we receive in an emergency, whether one that directly affects us or one that just feels like it does. In the former, of course, it matters more, and we are more likely to know precisely which bits of information we need. We can narrow our focus to find, say, a site that lists names of people who have been found safe in Sendai and Natori and Tokyo, or a phone number for an emergency service or a doctor’s name or the like.

But what about when we have a constant stream of news without any goal directing our actions? Like when we Americans (and people around the world) all sat glued to the TV for days after 9/11, watching the constant coverage, even when there was nothing new to report? And what about when need to do other things? People were very, very kind to me this time; whenever I said, “oh, I lived for three years in Japan before starting this program,” they asked me if I was okay and seemed to let me out of all obligations and expectations, though I still tried to pay attention to meetings I had to attend. But I couldn’t. I don’t remember much that happened in those meetings.

It would have been better if I had skipped those and just gone and watched NHK’s video. I had a visceral need to absorb the videos and blog entries and Facebook status updates from my friends in Japan. I needed crisis information; not being able to get to it, I found myself in an information crisis. I don’t want to go back to the time when we only got little bits of information about what was happening to our family and friends far away, but I do want to figure out how better to live in an age where we get it constantly and are able to indulge our desire for information, if only we have a chance to stop and think about something. We’ll probably never be able to do this entirely, just the way that Japan’s amazing building technology couldn’t eliminate all casualties, but we can try to do better.

I’m writing this down now not because I have any answers to these questions, but because I want to record this for the future so I can look back on it when I need to. (You’ll note, perhaps, that I’m posting this two and a half days after I first found out about the quake. I haven’t had a chance to stop and reflect on it until now!)

  1. Which is not to say it’s not also rude to our everyday professors.
  2. This is a digression from my main point of analyzing my information use in a crisis mindset, but I also am interested in circles of empathy, so let’s go on about that for a moment. The suffering after the quakes in Haiti and Chile and New Zealand would have bothered me considerably too, had I thought about the subject this much. But because I had no direct connection with those places, I was able to filter it out somehow as “happening to other people, far away.” That’s a normal emotional defense mechanism and it’s what keeps all of us from being in tears all the time. But I had lived in Japan. But then, I hadn’t lived in Miyagi-ken. But now they were within my circle of empathy because I’d so vividly imagined their plight. And now that I’d stopped to think about it, so were all the people in those other countries. Just the previous week I had responded to the American Library Association’s request to help fund the rebuilding of a library in Haiti. A lot of you are in library-related fields, so hey, maybe you’d consider helping them?

    Anyway, when I saw my friend Chiharu yesterday, as I always do on Fridays, she said she was amazed at how generous Americans were. I was truly touched by this and I would like to live up to her high estimation of us. I must also note that Japanese people were eager to press 1000 yen notes into my hands when I worked at the U.S. Pavilion at Aichi Expo while Hurricane Katrina was battering down on our coast. So they would do the same for us. But if you want to help Japan or any of these other places where people are suffering, check out the American Red Cross‘s donation page.

  3. I’m certainly not saying dismiss all rationality: cool-headed thinking and the like are obviously of the utmost importance in crises that within a certain level of proximity. But maturity alone can guide us on when/how we should give ourselves breaks and when/how we should be extra-strict with ourselves.
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