Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Watching The World From Cyberspace

Movietone News. Remember?  This was how many people got a chance to see images of current events before the days of T.V. news, YouTube, webcams, and smartphone video transmissions.  I remember as a kid going to a movie theater and before the feature film began watching a cartoon and then an episode of Movietone News.  I was fascinated by the filmed depictions of  people, places, and events that I had previously read or heard about.  The lag on these films was at least a couple of weeks, but it really didn't seem to matter -- things moved more slowly back in those days.

Fast forward to the last few weeks.  It would be hard to imagine a clearer illustration of how internet technology has changed the way we acquire knowledge of the world and the way we relate to people, places, and events than the role of technology in covering (a) the popular uprisings in the Middle East,  (b) the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and (c) closer to home, the sudden change in the ongoing eruption of Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii.

Unlike the days of Movietone News,  from anywhere in the world you could watch the demonstrations and confrontations in Egypt live , as they were happening, thanks to webcams streaming video images to internet sites.   Or you could access YouTube clips uploaded minutes after events happened.  Interpreting the meaning of what you were seeing was perhaps problematic,  but there was nevertheless a feeling of immediacy that was unmistakeable, and a feeling of being connected  to the people in this far away place.  For those providing the images there was no doubt a feeling of connection as well, and also a feeling of empowerment and influence.

The video coming from Japan has been a stunning, near real-time display of the destructive power of nature and the fragility of human existence.  I've seen movies and still photos of tsunamis before, but the current depictions have had an effect on me at much higher level of magnitude.  I think this is due to the range of video sources, the immediacy of the images, and to their internet accessibility.  As with the popular uprisings in the Middle East,  my empathy seems stronger because the images are depicting the events right now, not as they were sometime in the past.

My third example is the role of internet technology in covering the recent change in the eruption of Kilauea Volcano, about 90 miles from where I live here on the island of Hawai'i.   The current eruption has been going on for over 20 years, but it has changed in character several times during that period.  For the past couple of years the main activity has been from a side vent of Kilauea, which feeds lava to a system of tubes that carry it several miles to the ocean.  Although the side vent is in a remote part of Volcanoes National Park and volcanic gases make hiking to it very dangerous, real time images of it have been available from a webcam placed on the rim of the vent.  A webcam is also positioned over the summit caldera in a spot accessible only to geologists, and until just recently the summit camera showed fascinating images of a lava lake just below the rim. 

These live views of an erupting volcano, available to anyone in the world with access to the internet, illustrate my point very nicely.  But even clearer is the role of internet technology in providing an immediate experience of the change in the eruption which happened a couple of weeks ago.  Suddenly all activity at the summit and the side vent ceased,  and lava began fountaining from a crack near the vent.  Within hours the geologists had placed additional cameras near the crack to provide spectacular views of the event.  In this case technology allowed a real-time experience of something happening that would be too dangerous and too difficult to observe in any other way.  Like the tsunami, witnessing this event via the internet deepened my appreciation of the power and unpredictability of nature in a way a Movietone News clip could never have done.

It is certainly debatable whether constant connectivity with events around  the world is a good thing in all cases.  But there is little doubt that this technology has irreversibly altered our relationship to each other and to the world around us.

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