The internet of disaster

Asof this writing, Irma, a hurricane of unimaginable and historic proportions, is bearing down on South Florida. But you already know that.

Surely you’ve heard by now — online, on TV, or maybe both while you were looking at a screen in an elevator, cab, or airplane — that Irma is the most powerful storm on record, and it’s one of three hurricanes in the Atlantic to reach land this week. It almost makes you forget Hurricane Harvey, unless of course you were one of its many victims.

And as horrible as the hurricanes of the past two weeks are, there was that 8.2-magnitude earthquake in Mexico the other day, which killed scores of people. Never mind California’s weird weather — record droughtrecordrainfall and record heat, all during the past year — which, while shocking to those of us who live here, now seems trivial. What about those wind-whipped forest fires (truly apocalyptic photo gallery, via The Atlantic here) ripping across much of the West? Up in Washington state, the air was so smoky on Thursday that a state agency’s air-quality map crashed due to high traffic.

Government officials in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina pleaded for people to evacuate vulnerable areas, triggering a scramble for the essentials — gasoline, water, sandbags — that, even for hurricane-hardened Floridians, was laced with dread and punctuated with dire warnings from every direction. — The New York Times

At this point, I bet you think I’m going to go off on a climate change rant, but I’m not. (Though you should definitely read this excellent story in The Guardian and this Quartz explainer here.)

No, I’ve been thinking about why we seem to be living in a constant state of catastrophe. If it’s not the heavy weather, it’s hackers stealing our personal data, or North Korea about to lob a hydrogen bomb at us, or political unrest verging on civil war.

My thesis is simple: Since 9/11, the U.S. has been suffering from a lingering, post-traumatic stress syndrome. People who have lived through trauma often end up being on the lookout for more trauma. Psychologists call this hypervigilance. By being alert to danger, we believe we can avoid it.

Do you remember how, on that infamous day 16 years ago, the three cable news channels put up their news crawls because there was simply too much awful stuff to keep track of? But the thing is, that news ticker has never been switched off. Worse, since the last general election, it’s continually accompanied by a BREAKING NEWS banner.

There is no regular news anymore, it’s always BREAKING. Otherwise you wouldn’t pay attention, due to all the, uh, regular news, and the regular news crawl.

While it’s certainly true that we have had our share of unusually bad news lately, it’s also the case that we now live in a world where we’re super aware of everything that happens, 24/7, on our cell phones. Most Americans now get their news from social media, according to a recent Pew Research Center report. But social media often extends our sense of panic, with a flood of beeps and vibrations and on-screen notifications.

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