Big tragedy, little screens

I first heard about the earthquake and tsunami in Japan late Thursday night as an Associated Press breaking-news alert flashed across my husband’s iPhone screen. We quickly changed the television set to CNN and watched live coverage on the aftermath of the 9.0 quake until early in the morning.

By the time the sun rose in California, the entire world knew about the devastating Japanese tragedy—the rising death toll and the thousands of people missing in the wake of nature’s overwhelming and humbling path of destruction.

Over the 48 hours we consumed as much information as possible, reading news on our computers and phones, and watching live coverage online and on TV. We forwarded story links and posted astounding photos and videos. We looked on, shocked, as the effects of the earthquakes rippled thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean, killing one man in Crescent City and inflicting major tsunami-related damage up and down the California and Oregon coast.

We shared details and posted information about ways to donate money through our cell phones and computers.

And yet even in the midst of this digitally fueled exchange, a palpable disconnect started to twitter across the online universe.

The closer technology brings us to the world at large, it seems, the more it threatens to push away at the edges of reality.

Indeed, by Saturday night an information-overloaded exhaustion started to set in, at least online, with attitudes varying from bored and weary to unsympathetic and downright hateful.

On Twitter, vile idiots crawled out of the sewer to suggest that the earthquake was “God’s retribution” for Pearl Harbor. But even as a more humane chorus of voices tried to drown out the vitriol—“If this earthquake is Japan’s karmic punishment for Pearl Harbor, I dread to see what ours will be for Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” one person responded—a lingering sense of cynicism swelled.

Certainly, the Pearl Harbor remarks were at the extreme end of the spectrum, but still it felt as though an unsettling sense of disaster fatigue had settled into the conversation.

“Can we all go just back to food updates?” implored one Facebook user.

That sentiment was echoed on Twitter, where some made distasteful jokes about radiation and still others groused that the online mood had turned oppressively heavy.

“People complaining about people tweeting about anything but Japan need to check their moral superiority,” posted one user. “The world is not all tragedy.”

No, no, it’s not. But while the news in Japan hardly needs to consume every waking minute, this mounting feeling of ennui is heartbreakingly disappointing.

On one hand it’s easy to see where it comes from—even as the threat of a potentially catastrophic nuclear meltdown looms, sometimes it’s hard to fathom that these are bona fide images of a nation in distress—that what we see and experience via all our state-of-the-art technology isn’t a disaster movie but reality.

Somehow all these screens—our cell phones, our tablets, our laptops and desktops—manage to simultaneously bring us closer to the world at large while also creating a seemingly inaccessible chasm of detachment.

The Internet and all its machinations—e-mail and social networking, viral videos and constant news updates—both feeds into a feeling of global solidarity and a troubling lack of authenticity.

I couldn’t stop thinking about such contradictions when I went to bed on Sunday night, nestled warm in my bed on a cold and stormy night. As the rain came down in sheets outside my window, I felt very grateful for what I had—safety and shelter.

But I also felt very alone, so far removed, at least physically, from the drama that continued to unfold on all those tiny screens, from the truth that existed thousands of miles away.