The Net Office: The view from the ground

The latest Net Office spot went live on the New Statesman website this morning. Here’s my unedited copy – to read the NS version, click here.

Traditional reporting of natural disasters tends to concentrate on body counts. Body counts focus the mind. By using a universal system – numbers – they help people far removed from a disaster to understand the scale of what has happened. Body counts bridge the empathy gap – imagine the impact of 1 untimely death one mile from your home, then scale it to 10,000 deaths 10,000 miles away.

In the last few weeks, several body counts have competed for our attention. Does the body count resulting from the Tsunami that struck the Pacific islands of Samoa, American Samoa and Tonga (176 confirmed dead) make this spectacle of woe any less appalling than the earthquake that hit Sumatra the following day (1,000 confirmed dead, 3,000 missing in Padang alone)? Or should we convert the body count to a percentage of population? And what of the devastation wreaked by Typhoon Ketsana in the Philippines, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos? Death tolls may be lower, but hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced.

On the web, human tragedy trumps scale. “First, this is my house”, a young Peace Corps blogger based in American Samoa captions a photo of what is now a pile of wood and metal. This was your house. This was your village. This – a photo uploaded to Flickr of a dead woman lying face down in the mud at what was a busy traffic interchange in Manila – could have been your sister. A chaos of video clips swells up, each showing random scenes of destruction set to audio that already sounds like it’s coming from underwater. Of course, those that have lost the most fail to broadcast the tragedy they suffer. Here, the British Red Cross picks up the pieces (British Red Cross Flickr stream).

On Twitter, our tears mingle freely with the flood, in 140 characters or less. But it is the messages closest to the scene which stand out the most: “Tweeps, if you’d like to volunteer for Padang, please contact me, departing at 8 AM tomorrow. Doctors and paramedics preferred.” A video uploaded to YouTube shows surfers converting their boards into rafts to help get food to those cut off by Ketsana. Hope – as Voltaire knew – is what natural disasters lack in their immensity and what we, on the human scale, contribute best.

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