This Week in the Future: All Tomorrow’s Catastrophes

Hurricane Sandy in NYC

Hurricane Sandy in NYC

Each week, Team Shelly Palmer sends me a prompt for this column, focusing on a topical event or idea, which I then explore in regards to the future. This past week, the last week of October 2012, I received no prompt. I hadn’t really expected to. It’s been a hard week on the east coast of America. Hurricane Sandy made a mess of nearly the entire eastern half of the United States. As I write this, Shelly still doesn’t have electricity or water in New York City. It seemed appropriate to take a look at catastrophes.

Manhattan Island versus Hurricane Sandy in 140 Characters or Less

History is important to futurism. Understanding where we have come from helps us understand where we’re headed. This week I was struck with how much has changed since just a few years and catastrophes ago. The conversations in the media, on the Internet and with local communities have changed. Well, the conversations haven’t changed all that much – people are still worried about their friends, family and fellow Americans – but how they have those conversations has really changed.

Most Americans were glued to their TVs as Sandy marched its way inland. Flipping from news channel to news channel, the minute-to-minute coverage of the event was manic at best and hysterical in its lack of control. Journalists stated facts, reported for the scene and basically keep the viewing public informed. But the minute-to-minute coverage was almost irresponsible in its casting of the coming catastrophe as if it were some heavyweight prize fight in Las Vegas.

Ding! Ding! Ladies and Gentlemen… In this corner we have the current heavyweight champion of the world, the Island of Manhattan. Loved and hated by scores of fans. Managed and coached by Mikey “Quick Hands” Bloomberg, this champ is a rock solid fighter with a strong back and a feisty disposition. And in this corner, we have the unknown wonder, the kid from the south making his way up the record charts… he’s big, he’s slow moving, but he packs a wallop… Hurricane Sandy! Two will enter the ring but only one will emerge! Ding! Ding!

Let’s be clear, I’m not playing down the effects of the storm or the need for the public to have as much information as possible about the event. But the reports and projections were a breathless mix of fear and excitement, urging us to stay tuned.

Don’t get me wrong: I love TV, but for the first time, I had a different place to go for minute-to-minute coverage of the storm. Unlike TV, this coverage was not on the brink of hysteria and was surprisingly level-headed and in-depth. What was this new news source? Twitter.

The residents of Manhattan, New Jersey and the entire eastern seaboard of the United States tracked the storm in 140 characters or less, often with photos as well. I know the Internet is the Internet and Twitter is Twitter. As with most media, you get what you put into it. Most times, people share nothing more than a steady stream of personally relevant information that is at times amusing, offensive and usually just noise. But just as Americans can rally together in a time of crisis, so too can Twitter.

Twitter provided real-time updates from individuals as they lived through the catastrophe. As with most news, beyond the high level facts, it’s the details and the human stories that really give us a sense of what’s happening. Twitter provided a platform for people to connect and organize, similar to what we saw during Arab Spring.

Watching Cory Booker (@CoryBooker), the Mayor of Trenton, New Jersey, as he gave updates on the storm was incredible. People tweeted Booker to ask if they were in flood zones and he responded. They asked him to check on their loved ones and he did. They asked what shelter to go to and he answered. Booker used Twitter not only as a platform to get out official word but also as a personal way to reach specific people who needed his help.

Cory Booker

Cory Booker

To get a different perspective you could have followed political activist and writer Baratunde Thurston (@Baratunde) as he made his way across Manhattan and into Brooklyn as the storm bore down on the city. He acted as an embedded reporter with a sense of humor, taking snapshots of the preparations while also stopping at bars to have a drink with the locals and hear their thoughts. It was style of “reporting” that wasn’t possible just a few years ago.

Baratunde Thurston

Baratunde Thurston

Baratunde Thurston

Baratunde Thurston

I’m not saying that we should all throw out or TVs for Twitter, but the widespread use of smartphones, the Internet and social media have given us a way to communicate we didn’t have before. This new, more personal means of reporting has created a whole new set of expectations. We not only want minute-by-minute updates, but we expect that technology to work in the middle of the catastrophe.

Many reports post-Sandy focused on the lack of cellular service and Internet connectivity. People talked less about their lack of water than they did about their inability to get onto Facebook so they could check in on their loved ones and let people know they were okay. Sandy illustrated something about the vital services we will need in future catastrophes that has moved beyond water, power, shelter and food: We need to add Twitter, Facebook, the Internet and 4G to that list. In fact, many folks were giving up shelter to seek out 4G and Twitter. These new necessities change our future, change how we plan for the next catastrophe and make us better prepared.

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DISCLAIMERI am Intel’s futurist. I am currently on sabbatical from Intel.  My thoughts, observations and analyses are mine personally and I am not speaking on behalf of Intel.

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Author:

Brian David Johnson

The future is Brian David Johnson's business. As a futurist at Intel Corporation, his charter is to develop an actionable vision for computing in 2020. His work is called "future casting"—using ethnographic field studies, technology research, trend data, and even science fiction to provide Intel with a pragmatic vision of consumers and computing. Along with reinventing TV, Johnson has been pioneering development in artificial intelligence, robotics, and using science fiction as a design tool. He speaks and writes extensively about future technologies in articles and scientific papers as well as science fiction short stories and novels (Science Fiction Prototyping: Designing the Future with Science Fiction, Screen Future: The Future of Entertainment Computing and the Devices we Love, Fake Plastic Love, and Nebulous Mechanisms: The Dr. Simon Egerton Stories). He has directed two feature films and is an illustrator and commissioned painter.

  • http://twitter.com/impboy impboy

    Some good points you make here. A correction, though: Cory Booker is the mayor of Newark, not Trenton.

    My favorite Sandy tweet (from @daveweigel) actually focused on Booker: “Hurricane projected to hit New Jersey. Cory Booker spotted hastily removing shirt, running into phone booth.”

  • ws

    ” the kid from the south making his way up the record charts… he’s big, he’s slow moving, but he packs a wallop… Hurricane Sandy!”
    Correction on this too – Hurricane Sandy was a female name, therefore a woman actually kicked Bloomberg’s butt, but then that probably is not that hard to do.