I experienced my first earthquake last weekend, a 5.1 with an epicenter near Sparta, NC that still had plenty of juice by the time it made it more than 200 km to where I was in Waynesville, NC.
I was uh…indisposed at the time, and as things started to shimmy, I thought “What the *@#! is going on?” There was no handy explanation. My first apartment after college near Diversey and Clark was on a major CTA bus thoroughfare, and when one drove by, our living room on the third floor would rumble for a couple seconds. It felt like that, only for considerably longer and with more force.
“What the *@#! is going on?” could be the official slogan of 2020, don’t you think? The desire to make sense of the insensible is pretty powerful, and yet seems to be consistently defeated these days. In the case of the earthquake, a quick search of Twitter found dozens of people in my feed reporting that they thought they just experienced an earthquake. I chimed in. Within four or five minutes, someone replied with a tweet to the official report from the appropriate government entity. It was all very reassuring. Something inexplicable happened, others noticed the same phenomenon, and these noticings were confirmed and validated by an authoritative source.
Before the internet I would’ve had to wait for a report on television or radio to inform me of what happened. Given that we didn’t have access to live television where we were, it might’ve been hours before I learned the truth. I’m wondering if this would’ve been a more or less desirable state.
Within fifteen minutes of me learning we’d had an earthquake, my mother was texting me, asking if I’d felt it. The degrees and vectors of our interconnectedness became suddenly visible to me. I shared my earthquake experience with total strangers on Twitter. They responded in kind, forming at least a temporary bond, we were all in an earthquake together. My mother a thousand miles away, knew we’d been in an earthquake minutes after it happened. It’s kind of weird to think about.
So here’s the power of this technology to bring us together in an instant, a shared bond, but I keep wondering if the same power is what’s causing us to be callous to the needs of others when it comes to the pandemic. More than 1,000 people a day are dying from COVID. Every time I turn on CNN or go to the New York Times, the total is updated. My local paper tracks the infections and deaths and percent positive tests for every county in South Carolina.
What is happening to me when I look at these graphs and breathe a sigh of relief that Charleston County is looking better than Pickens County? Is it possible that all this connectedness is actually turning other individuals into mass abstractions? We certainly talk about things this way in general. You now hear people use constructions like, “What Twitter thinks,” referring not to the company, but to the prevailing sentiments of the users of the platform. Often, “What Twitter thinks” is actually shorthand for a small subset of users, and usually in such a way as to put oneself in opposition to this group, as in, “I will not be swayed by what Twitter thinks,” as though a place where individuals can mass together to be heard is a reason to discount that sentiment.
With the earthquake, those of us in the radius experienced it all at once, a truly shared event with a beginning and end. While the pandemic requires us all to make accommodations, unless and until we or someone close to us gets infected, it seems like we aren’t truly experiencing it. The stories of people saying they weren’t worried about the virus up until it hit them are legion, practically a cliché by now. We also have no end in sight to this thing.
Given the depth of disruption, it’s strange to think that we aren’t sharing the experience of the pandemic, but we aren’t, and that lack of sharing is probably one of the factors that’s making the collective American response so utterly ineffectual. That and a Federal government that appears indifferent to rallying us around the fact that we’re all in this together.
We appear to be numb to the equivalent of three (or more) plane crashes a day of deaths, quite possibly because it is so easy to quantify and even experience those deaths from a distance.
Connectedness is not synonymous with intimacy, I suppose.
If we really allow ourselves to become numb to more than 1,000 deaths a day, more than 160,000 total and climbing, what does this say about the value of all this connectedness if all it does is erode our intimacy?
Yours in confusion,