Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Museum, The Message & The Movie

The Museum

My recent trip to New Orleans for Rising Tide 5 and observances of the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's landfall and the flood that followed in New Orleans started with a an event at the Louisiana State Museum, Katrina 5.0: A Symposium on Technology and Blogging. I commend the museum for their choice of subject and hope they'll continue the discussion of Social Media in Disaster, because there isn't a community in this country for which this has been more important than SE Louisiana. In the wake of the hurricane in Mississippi, the flood in New Orleans and the diaspora that followed these events, for the first time in this country, citizen-generated online content distributed vital information, became emergency communication used to look for the lost, locate the safe and to broadcast, in the truest sense of the word, real-time vital information. Social Media, including Craig's List, blogs and online message boards became the means through which dispersed communities re-formed their existing connections and established new ones, based on their ongoing shared experience. This was the environment in which first the NOLA Bloggers and then Rising Tide organized.

Troy Gilbert, @gulfsails, was on the Symposium panel to discuss his live blogging of the immediate aftermath in River Ridge and the flood in Lakeview, which he did initially by texting to post on Blogger and later charging his laptop via a generator and finding a live hard phone line so he could access the internet with a laptop and a dial-up connection. This information led to a lively discussion on the particular value of text messaging (and dial-up) in an emergency, followed by a discussion of the remarkable way in which Twitter was used by New Orleanians in the Gustav evacuation. Because Twitter can be accessed for both sending and receiving tweets using text messages on the most ordinary cell phones, and because it's possible to follow tagged subjects (#gustav #nexthurricane) in addition to people (@bestfriend) on Twitter, a group of technologically inclined New Orleanians and their extended digital support system saw Twitter's potential as an emergency management tool and intentionally adopted the platform, set themselves up as a group, knowing that it would be useful in an evacuation, given what they'd learned in numerous evacuations, including recent memories of the extended one that followed Katrina.

Text messages are tiny packages of data, that, once sent, hang in the ether until they manage to get through, able to do so, eventually, even when cell towers are struggling with power problems and whole area codes appear to be down. By the time Gustav made his landfall, there was a very developed active network of NOLA tweeters. Evacuees were reporting traffic conditions as well as fuel, supplies and accommodations availability on the road. Their friends in other locales were tweeting to them updates on the storm and related news, while folks who chose to remain in New Orleans were tweeting conditions there, even up to, on days two and three and four, going house to house looking for porch lights intentionally left on for just this purpose and informing their friends, via Twitter, when their electricity came back on, all reporting from the evacuation or the storm, vital information, 140 characters at a time. Suddenly, Twitter wasn't just a game, or a fun thing to do, not just a clever marketing channel or a silly time suck, but an excellent emergency management tool, that if deployed by responders could function something like interoperability lite.

It's important that we talk about it, write about it and share ideas, because we're all just learning how to do this and there's value in shared knowledge. Kudos to the Louisiana State Museum for furthering the discussion, for spreading the word. I was very glad to get down there for it, and I look forward to the museum's upcoming exhibit: Living with Hurricanes, Katrina and Beyond opening 10/26/10.

The Message

So there they were in the summer of 2006, these newly-forming NOLA Bloggers, almost a year into the internet explosion that erupted from the diaspora, already instinctively trying to correct the erroneous terminology of Hurricane Katrina, the Natural Disaster that struck MS vs. The Flood, the Infrastructure (or Engineering) Failure that followed in New Orleans, erroneous terminology that was taking hold in the national narrative, when Scout Prime, then blogging at First Draft, suggested to Oyster of Your Right Hand Thief, that there could be a conference. Her suggestion resulted in this post, which resulted Rising Tide 1, which led to Rising Tide 5, this year, that Rising Tide webmaster, Lance Vargas, described in Fear and Loathing at Rising Tide 5, as "the largest concentration of myth dispellers in any one place that weekend." Myth dispellers, bloggers and their readers, tweeters or just supportive interested parties, gathering with experts brought in to help find the truth buried in all the noise, gathering to ask questions that help define the message that they would in turn broadcast, if not pioneering new media advocacy, certainly trying to perfect having fun trying.

It's a mission based on the notions that the words matter and that corporately funded media can't be trusted to get it right, that they're compromised by obligations to sponsors on one side and ratings on the other, thus inclined to deliver a pre-packaged PR story to suit their advertisers that also manages to pander to their audience's preferences, and that this infects all kinds of officials, public and private, so much so that a president who must know better still suggests that the flood in New Orleans was a natural disaster and limits declaration of the man-made failures to the response, or lack thereof, still making no mention of a catastrophic infrastructure failure. Maybe that's just too scary. Terrorists really are superfluous when we have all these hidden time bombs in our infrastructure.

So, it's been a desire shared by many to at least try to correct the message, to try to find and further the truth rather than the neatly packaged stories we're given by a for-profit media, that started Rising Tide and fuels its growth, a desire to gather and look for the truth that will help define the message, an evolving mission to change the words, and not just about the flood, because these same mistakes get made over and over again, most notably, recently, with the oil spill, and will be the same with the oil spill as long as we keep calling it the oil spill. Spill is something one does with their coffee. I'll even go so far as to accept that spill is something that happens when an oil-carrying tanker loses its load, but BP and Transocean and Halliburton and their sub-contractors and all the parts of the U.S. government that participated in their oversight, primarily the MMS and Congress, in the process of trying to take something that probably oughtn't belong to them in the first place out of the earth, broke the floor of the Gulf of Mexico, opened a gash through which the contents of the earth gushed out, and they were unable to stop it because they hadn't bothered, in their headlong rush to get the prize out of the earth, to prepare for the possibility that something could go wrong, hadn't bothered to have a real plan in place in case they, well, broke the floor of the Gulf of Mexico. Safety First, performance art used to cover up just another greed-corrupted, profit-driven culture. When they did break the earth, they lied about it, like a naughty child covering up the mess they'd made, hoping Mommy wouldn't see it. When that didn't work, they threw poison on it, a poison with only one purpose: to make the oil less visible. They didn't care that the poison, Corexit, was worse for all the things that live in (around?) the Gulf of Mexico than was the oil, that it would make it harder to find the oil, so it would make it harder to remove the oil, and also that it would infect the food chain from the bottom up, that there was no science to tell them exactly how this would manifest, whether it could go all the way from killing of species of marine life to creating dangerous seafood. No one knows, but BP didn't care. Hiding their mess was the only thing they cared about. But I digress, sort of.

Profit-driven cultures frequently evolve this way, with appearances trumping reality, and finding a way to tell your immediate superior what they want to hear rather than the truth becomes a necessary tactic for advancement, since how it looks is way more important than how it really is, and the words, the spin, and the shiny tale told seems more real than the ugly, broken, failing true story that lies beneath. Whether it's levees built on goo, or an overly gaseous well, or a crumbling system of pipes carrying explosive natural gas through residential neighborhoods, the current corporate/government/big media culture is that it's best not to talk about what's going wrong if you want to keep your job. Nobody cares about what they can't see.

So we all just do what we can, because we can, because the words matter and we can say that loudly, and it's pretty glorious that others before us fought all these years in this country to protect our rights to say what we're thinking publicly, the way that other Americans have, all the back to Thomas Paine, except now, our little homemade pamphlets are, if ephemeral, wildly distributable to a potentially huge audience, able sometimes to tap into a public energy that can sweep a topic up into the larger consciousness, making it possible, with a few bytes posted online and oft repeated, to influence what happens next, to change the words, which brings me to The Movie.

The Movie

On Monday, August 30th, still in New Orleans, I went to see Harry Shearer's documentary film about the true causes of the flood versus the myths built into the most widely accepted stories, The Big Uneasy, at the Prytania Theater with @VirgoTex and @RacyMind. We found the aforementioned Oyster there and attended one of the shows after which Shearer spoke briefly and took questions. I liked the movie, although I am not its intended audience but rather its echo chamber. There wasn't much I learned, as I've spent the last five years kind of studying this, but it was interestingly presented and it's a movie that needs to be seen and talked about and quoted, all as part of this same mission, this message, this perhaps stupidly old-fashioned idea that truth matters, that knowing what really happened matters, that making sure it or something like it doesn't happen again or somewhere else matters.

The movie was initially scheduled to play one night only on 8/30 in theaters across the nation, and the DVD can't be sold until ninety days after the theatrical release, but Shearer has promoted it fiercely and the film's gotten some legs, so there've been some additional screenings scheduled and extended clips posted online. He does a good job of explaining the science of what happened, including perhaps the best graphic of the time line of the levee failures that I've seen. If I can find that clip online, I'll post a link as an update. John Goodman's "Ask A New Orleanian" segments are nice comic relief that also yield valuable information, and the film's pace was comfortable even on a belly full of Franky & Johnny's fried catfish and a couple of beers.

During the Q & A that followed, when asked how he funded the production, Shearer said, "I like to think that this is Rupert Murdoch's money that paid for this; I just acted as a conduit." The audience laughed at his reference to his work on The Simpsons for Fox, later adding to point out that he made the movie because what we call the mainstream media failed to report truthfully, "Why else would a schmuck from Spinal Tap and The Simpsons have to do this if they'd done their jobs?"

Perhaps most interesting in all of the post-release stories is one Shearer told that night that's since taken on some life of its own via the internet, about his attempts to purchase underwriting on NPR, which he did when he realized that neither Morning Edition nor All Things Considered would be covering the release of his film. What followed is not something one would've expected from NPR. Here's how Shearer described it:

NPR's legal department ruled that these words were not acceptable in the announcement: "documentary about why New Orleans flooded", that the only words that would work for them were "documentary about New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina" -- this despite the fact that the movie IS about why New Orleans flooded, and it most certainly is not about the hurricane (since the experts interviewed in the movie agree that the flooding was a "man-made engineering catastrophe").

It didn't surprise me later to learn that Shearer's inspiration to make the movie came at Rising Tide 4, for which he was the keynote speaker (that link is to @sophilab's video of his keynote address), because what struck me most, what I kept thinking about on the drive home to Atlanta, what led to this whole long-winded ramble of a post, was that his mission in making this movie was maybe identical or at least very close to identical to our mission with Rising Tide: to dispel myths, to help define the words that are used to describe these events to the rest of the world, to take the definition of those messages away from the entities and organizations with financial interest in the outcome or something similar and use whatever kind of platform we have to replace the spin that had been sold as truth with what really happened, and that this mission doesn't end with New Orleans' flood, but includes what we call what BP did to the Gulf of Mexico and whether we consider the mammoth commercial apparatus that reports news for us our mainstream media, or what it really is, owned and operated by sponsors, corporately-funded or for-profit.

I'm sorry to go so horribly long (although it's hard to believe anyone could possibly still be reading), and am almost ashamed at how much time it's taken to get this written, but it seems to me this is important because it looks like it's going to be a long, hard fight.

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