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The Oil Spill as Metaphor for Our Times

BY Micah L. Sifry | Monday, May 31 2010

Depending on your perspective, the Gulf oil spill is many things: a reminder of human fallibility, an indictment of corporate greed, a painful example of government regulatory failure, a portrait of the power of big money in politics, a wake-up call about our continuing addiction to cheap oil. Arguably, it is proof that America has become very good at making what we once imagined as rare accidents, "black swans" in the parlance of Wall Street, into high probability events. Assuming you've been paying attention to the news, by now you probably think it is some combination of all of those things.

But it is also a quintessentially 21st century spectacle, and the way we are experiencing it is yet another warning of something that is deeply broken about how we use information today: we consume shocking images almost entirely without taking meaningful action in response.

To give you an example of what I mean, just go watch a few minutes of the BP oil spill video:

Tell me, did you do anything after watching the spill for a while? I'm betting the answer is no. And how did you feel, as you watched it? Transfixed and dazed, right? Like rubbernecking past a car accident. Did you get out of your car to offer help? Probably not.

I once heard the investigative journalist Charles Lewis describe the first journalist as someone who ventured into an unexplored cave to find out for his tribe if there was a bear living inside, or if it was safe for them to enter. News, in other words, was connected to vital action.

But look at how we consume news now:

WKRG.com News

We've got live video from a mile under the ocean (!) and competing news sites offering leak-counters for how bad it is, but are we doing anything with that information?

You can watch the spill live all over the web, including on the website of the House Energy Independence and Global Warming committee, whose chairman Ed Markey wrested the live video from BP a few weeks ago. (Unfortunately, Markey's tech savvy doesn't extend to making sure his video embed runs in all browsers.)

But as far as I can tell, on none of these sites--which collectively are probably getting tens of thousands of unique visits an hour--are visitors invited to do anything about any of the problems being surfaced by this disaster. There are no calls to join together in any kind of collective action to deal with the bear in this cave. Millions of us, no doubt, are individually upset by what is unfolding in the Gulf, but so far, there is no communal response being organized--either by government, by the media, or by the company responsible.

I'm not suggested that we focus on crowdsourcing a better technical solution to plugging the hole on the ocean floor. I suppose there might be someone out there with a smarter idea than the professionals engaged in fighting the spill, and the more transparent BP and the government are about all their efforts to deal with the crisis, the better others can monitor and check and support them.

I'm talking about using this moment of national crisis to leverage a big change in business as usual. We are a hugely complex society, so complex in fact that some believe we may not be able to fix problems like excessive corporate greed and cost-cutting; lax government oversight and the capture of regulators by the industries they oversee; disproportionate influence by the wealthiest industries over Congress; or our own complicit reliance on cheap oil. Those are big, hard problems, and it isn't as if we all agree about what to do about them, either.

But when millions of us are transfixed by a crisis--not on some faraway shore like Aceh or one not so faraway like Haiti--but on our own beaches and wetlands, we should ask ourselves: what more can we do to pull ourselves together to make sure these "accidents" stop. As my friend and colleague Andrew Rasiej once said, in the same way RSS makes it easy to knit together news and blog posts and other feeds into a coherent whole, we need something like RSSA--Really Simple Syndicated Action--to help connect us around common and valuable action.

Otherwise, that oil spill live video is truly a metaphor for our Information Age: a time when raw and live data gushes over us without any filter, but instead of informing and guiding action, it simply pollutes the infosphere and leaves us transfixed and dazed.

At Personal Democracy Forum this week, we're going to talk about this problem. Maybe the people in the room can help solve it.

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