Monday, 21 March 2011

Nature's Tantrums and the Seamless Flux

Nature’s Tantrums

And the

 Seamless Flux 

 - Shub Atpug

“Great breakthroughs are always followed by great catastrophes.” - Rosalia de Castro

Human beings will line up for miles to buy a bucket of catastrophes, but don’t try
selling sunshine and light – you’ll go broke.”
  - Chuck Jones

Nature is artful.

It knows the art to get even with man, just as he thinks he has conquered it all.

Nature rebounds with an untiring skill, kills and clutches its prey, annihilates matter, re-gains all that man thinks it had lost, and reclaims all that it thinks is its own. Be it the ice ages, Noah’s Arc, the age of reptiles, or the present-day tsunami in Japan, the ‘Evolution of Species’ and ‘Survival of the fittest’ are at work as an idiomatic predicament, replete with the perennial scars of contortion.

A few months back I was slogging and slaughtering my afternoon, neck-deep in work which, like the heat of the spring, was both tormenting and temperamental. I would scarcely cobble up minutes to peek at my Facebook wall and housekeep my personal email bin. It was around 3:30 pm in the afternoon when I saw a Facebook notification drip in from a friend in Delhi who wrote on his wall: ‘Earthquake 2 minutes back. 4.5 on scale.’ I could see it was posted 0 minutes back, which meant I was reading it within a minute of his posting. Immediately, I
commented: ‘Oh my God! Hope you are safe, Ankit!” For once, however, I really felt ill-at-ease for my parents who lived in Delhi. I was the first to comment on Ankit’s post, and even as I was doing so, I was trying to garner my mobile to make an international call to my parents. Within a few seconds, I did. I had a verbal snuggle with my parents, to know they were safe. From the coarse response coming out of a delirious huskiness of my mother’s voice, I could gather they didn’t have an inkling what this earthquake-talk was all about.

My parents were bewildered at one thing though- on how I was talking to them in detail, about an earthquake that had occurred merely 4 or 5 minutes back, while stationed thousands of miles away. 

In the meantime, other internet browser windows had been born on my computer, including
a couple of search pages. One had a google listing of articles derived from the search string ‘earthquake in Delhi’ that brought out hundreds of news channel pages that talked of the tremors and were served red hot from the oven. Another page took me to a Facebook group that seemed to have been just created – it listed the important helpline phone numbers in Delhi, and was relaying important facts, dos and don’ts. There were already a few hundred people who had ‘liked’ it. The next thing I knew I had to do was to open a Youtube page and search with the same search-string and fetch video results, wherein people from different corners of Delhi had already uploaded camcorder or digital camera captured videos for public viewing. 

Ankit has 4000 friends on his friend list. I can duly affirm, most of his friends in different corners of the world would have touched base with their families in northern India within minutes or hours, seeing his wall posting just the way I did. He had his Facebook account looped to his Twitter too, and hence his innumerable twitter-followers would have seen his tweet and then re-tweeted in turn to all and sundry to follow.

Ours is a small world, they say. Ours is a big world, others say. But then, this is the only world we have. Getting flying saucers lined up to transport us to faraway domains of obsolete planets and ‘x’th moons in case of a world catastrophe is out of question, at least for now. We face it here – in this world, we deal with it here, and we atone for our sins here. The law of Karma prevailing in any other world is a misfit here, and the nuances can best be decrypted as a bunch of non-fathomable code. Mere mortals you’d say, diminutive acumen. What
interests me here, however, is the pace at which we have transformed our world into an information gateway – a cordite of incessant omni-directional flow, where your own curiosity and keenness for knowledge are the only things you need to work on. If you have these, information is a shadow lurking behind you, trying to jump at you at the speed of your own thought. 

The trend over the years has moved on from the newspapers and television, to information shared over social networking sites like Facebook, and other public domains that legalize individual reporting. Liberty and its varied hues, which once, used to be tall-talk, has gained practical acceptability in all walks of human enterprise. A person in Yemen having access to internet knows, if not totally aware, of what’s going on around the globe. When Gaddafi churns out a comment on the President of the US, not only does Obama know that he has been remarked about, but the entire world knows it too! In all probability, there would be videos in Youtube detailing the event wherein Gaddafi said so! Reporters don’t have to be overtly cautious of their costly cameras and start on a sojourn to capture a scoop. It just happens! You don’t need a mental setup or preparation to carry your mobile in your pocket every morning. Click, click, and one’s done!

Any natural disaster comprises of three parts – firstly, the actual disaster where an ‘x’ number of people lose their lives. This is the real-time scenario when people come face to face with the devastation. 
Secondly, the phase when the toll rises owing to lack of both corrective and suggestive information amongst the people affected, and the casualty seems to be multiple times over the original estimate. 
Thirdly, a parallel phase to the second in which the external world is unaware of the ground zero goings-on and hence unable to assist in minimizing the loss of lives and property. The most important thing, however, is for us to capture information as a means and end to learning, so that the next time a catastrophe happens, we know where to taut the string, or where to loosen a bit. And mend things just in time, following the old adage of
the timely  stitch.

What we see today in Japan is a case in point. Let me treat it with a perspective different from a typical catastrophe-ridden corollary where the theorem is but a conspiring Nature trying to sign up a revengeful deal with our world. Let me indulge in some very subjective and epidermal thoughts on where we stand as a world entity. And the nuances in leading the sacred cow of elitist seclusion of news, into the proletarian open – not for any retrospective remedies at hand, but as a respect to the urgency of ‘knowing things’ and as an educational
testament for posterity.

 Japan is a tiny freckle on the world atlas. It is the land of raging mountains, shifting seas, pounding waters, catastrophic explosions, fatal radiation leaks, sinister crevices that open up the face of the earth. It is also about news that matters and news that doesn’t. It is about news that has no take-away, and the news that itself is the take-away. It is about news that might not help you practically, but that’s the only practical help available in the dark times. Japan is also the kingpin of electronic goods and computer gadgets that have now been buried forever, as if they were a civilization whose day had come. For this world with a partially
and permanently deprived sanity, it is also about the utilization of the free press and television channels, the direct transmissions by individuals from the zone of disaster, twitter alarms, Facebook posts, digital scoops, and sensitive footages that are worth a million dollars. Yet, what has surfaced out of all this is a man that is thirsty for more information, a man that is both hostile and servile to none but himself. Silence is considered a thawed inaptitude, while
streaming is smart dose.

Quake footage was available almost instantly, concocted like 2-minute noodles: Office workers running amok to get shelter as building chunks slammed to the ground; skyscrapers swaying like evergreens in a windstorm;  pictures falling off walls and unnerving the workforce; retail store stocks bursting open on the floor. All through this one man kept recording as though he was unfazed, even as his
living room seemed to fall apart around him. His camera caught his shaky steps as he ultimately rushed outside. But as dramatic as the earthquake images were, the tsunami video — some of it live — was breathtaking. A handful of tourists captured the Indonesian tsunami in 2004, but there was much less variety and inferior film quality. Technology — particularly cell-phone cameras — was not what it has become today. The subsequent upload on to Facebook and Youtube has clearly become child’s play, and to get more space on the Server there is cloud computing on its way. At the blink of the eyelashes stands the overtly smart
work of the upload of all news for all to see!

Japan, on its part, is a well-equipped country for recording such disasters. With its history of seismic tremors and devouring tsunamis, it is no surprise that it has housed one of the finest technology covers to capture such calamities. Seismic monitors and robotic cameras are
mounted throughout the archipelago, and it was kind of routine whence the Japanese news crews quickly ended up on to the streets and skies after the earthquake, leaving them well-positioned to capture the tsunami. A video that surfaced recently showed a local news crew abandoning a car with the tsunami approaching and rushing into a building as water began swirling around their feet. One particularly unnerving clip  showed water and debris rapidly rising as a group of people struggled to make it up a path to higher ground; CNN stopped rolling the shot — the fate of the crew remains unknown. There was yet another instance in which men who had raced to the top of a parking garage kept recording the tsunami even as one openly wondered whether he would survive or not.

In the days that followed the earthquake, CNN producers constantly monitored social media sites to find newly posted material, and dozens of Japanese citizens sent footage directly to the channel. It was as if Japan was a stage, the world its consumer, the commodity being news. Like individual workers who might offer their services for free, there were people resorting to their digi-cams and camcorders, to get things straightened out, even risking their
lives to do so. In some cases, they couldn’t even be sure if they’d go back unscathed, but that wouldn’t deter them. Heroes have been born time and again, during holocausts and catastrophes, to bring home the fact that human beings care for their next generations. The footages directly sent to CNN gave it the best ratings ever since President Obama’s inauguration in 2009. 

Just a mention about the uniqueness of a tsunami here: A tsunami was considered the most mysterious of Nature’s wraths, whose devastating power was evident only in the aftermath. Yet when the earthquake ripped open Japan’s surface on 11th March, the tsunami became one of the world’s most recorded disaster ever to be captured on film - that ranged from micro-camera films and recordings to satellite captures, moment by moment, take by take, frame by frame. It lent a visual power to story-telling and fiction, amalgamating another world in which soothsayers have prophesized the Earth’s end sooner than later. Comparing the movie ‘2012’ by director Roland Emmerich, which tried to depict the gloomy day, some people started noticing that it wasn’t that different after all! Sky-scrapers tumbled with the same force, and impounding water inundated the streets as if they were rivers and springs. Roads vanished into streams of gushing water with earth-shattering speed. The cars collided against each other in floating suspension, even as entire houses were afloat and in friction with species of their kind. It was the utter chaos of the Universe, where dead bodies floated
like shipwreck, only to be pushed aside for something new.

People ran for covers, to save their lives, away from death, decimation. The water was
rising up every minute, not by inches, but by feet. It was difficult to keep pace with the giant bent upon devouring miniscule bodies of humans, tearing their flesh, and banging their bones into powdery pastes. It wasn’t something people would have thought of capturing some ten years back, but this time people did. Hundreds of people on Facebook and Youtube in different parts of the globe were agape, watching the innumerable uploads that were just real.
Nobody would have had time to edit or photo-shop them since everything was happening in real-time. If one had to see the latest, they were turning to Google. 
People all over the world were swamped with feelings of first-hand participation, and given that the videos were perilously taken, it was mere conjecture if the takers of the videos were alive themselves. Evading death is not child’s play. The ways of Providence are sometimes cruel, not just pure chance. Posterity would loiter around with the videos one day, treat them as ingredients for a research-material and delve deep into them, safeguard entirely new findings, paint new perspectives and offshoots about natural disasters. There will be forums soliciting penetrative discussions and breathtaking arguments, but all these much later.

Today is an age of instant information where people cannot wait a wee bit. They need uncensored and real-time information, and feel let-down if they don’t get it. This, in a way, also implies how man is more impatient today, than he ever was. They miss out the small beauties of life, in trying to grapple with the details themselves – it’s a circular loop. The days of studious toil at libraries to get hold of newspaper archives are gone. Across countries, across cultures, across languages and religions, it’s a seamless world. Google Earth swoops down upon your house in Tokyo and satellite pictures reveal where the water flowed across
the streets you walked as a child. Youtube shows you what actually happened there to people you would have known! The videos account for what would have been your plight had you been there! And then, Facebook lets you share your wall to hundreds of your friends with whom you share your grief, and this multi-chain sharing cascades across elephantine friend lists! The news is all over the place at the speed of light. Twitter does it short and sweet for you – a minute-by-minute frame of what’s going on, on the fly! Everyone is a reporter
and a journalist today in his own little way, with his own little rights, and unbiased perspectives dished out for an open contest. The world is not just your village now, it is in your home. 

Coming to the quote at the start of this essay - Well, nobody wants to sell sunshine and light anymore. 

Because they know what comes out of it if they do. 

And with the plethora of information made available in real-time, they have their
own reasons to believe they know!


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