DK is one of the better writers on the meaning of technology. Here he is complete in his weekly column.
The Tsunami and the Net: Global Awareness, Global Response
The web not only gave us real-time news of the gigantic waves' destruction, but also pushed us to help the survivors.
Jan 05 2005
By David Kirkpatrick
The terrible Asian tsunami, and its aftermath, has been rightly called the first truly global tragedy. One reason is that citizens of so many different countries were killed, injured or left destitute. The other reason is that the Internet's globe-spanning power made it possible for news accounts, pictures, and videos of the devastating natural disaster to be quickly transmitted around the world. Barely a day after many of us in the U.S. opened Christmas presents, we were jarred out of our complacency to see and hear about tremendous suffering halfway around the globe.
And a lot of what we saw wasn't typical media coverage either. One amateur video I found on a blog begins with a camera pointing out of a third-story window, while concerned, but clinical-sounding voices comment on the big waves offshore. Then somebody says, with alarm, "Look at that oneit must be 15- or 20-feet high!" In a few seconds, the waves get shockingly close, the camera's angle abruptly jerks and skews, and the image blurs as people shout, "Get away!" This is disturbing; it's not a dispassionate talking head telling us how someone suffered, but rather a victim showing us how the tsunami's waves wreaked havoc right before his eyes.
We live in an age of citizens' media, when individuals can easily record what's happening around them with digital cameras and broadcast their work to the rest of the world via the Internet within minutes.
In rich countries, far from the devastated shores, citizens used technology in a different wayto help the survivors. Many of us, wanting to do something, donated online. Charities reported an outpouring of contributions. At Amazon.com alone, in the first 11 days after the tsunami, 178,000 people donated an average of $80 each$14 millionfor the American Red Cross's relief efforts. With technology, when we are moved to act, we can do so with new speed.
But the downside of giving money while seated comfortably at our computers is that it gives us a sense of virtue without really getting involved. One anonymous online columnist for the MediaPost Real Media Riffs newsletter described such "detached, remote" giving: "For the first time we... really understood what John Lennon meant by 'instant karma' reaching to the other side of the world via high-speed cable access and an American Express account."
So it is encouraging to see Internet-mediated help going deeper. A blog sprang up after the disaster, The South-East Asia Earthquake and Tsunami Blog, which not only linked readers to groups that needed money, but also served as a clearinghouse between relief organizations and those eager to volunteer. For instance, a Brazilian biologist with forensic experience offered to go and help identify victims, if someone could only tell him how. Though this blog was up only a few days it accounted for 2% of total Internet traffic to charitable and humanitarian sites in the week ended January 1, according to Hitwise, an Internet analysis service.
The web gives people an amazing array of outlets to receive information about disasters and respond to them, and it does much, much more. It demands that response. That's because the Internet makes the response as visible as the tragedy.
We live in a newly transparent world of mutual awareness. Many millions have Internet connections in Asia, like we do here. If the wealthy U.S., for instance, did not provide huge amounts of aid under these circumstances, its inaction would be as visible to the Net-connected world as the tsunami's devastation. The resentment and anger, if Americans did not react, would probably have been felt in many ways. President Bush's initial hesitation as the magnitude of the disaster slowly became known was absolutely unsustainable, which thankfully he recognized.
The tsunami, like 9/11, forces us all to think harder about how small the world has become. That's one positive outcome amid all the awful ones. We need global thinking more than ever to tackle the world's biggest problems, particularly poverty. The Internet continues to knit us all together in new ways we can still barely fathom.
Questions? Comments? E-mail them to me at dkirkpatrick@fortunemail.