It may be too soon to know if the expanding global access to electronic media both new and old, from video cell-phones and Facebook to Al-Jazera and CNN, is making the world more intimate or more alienated (remember "Compassion Fatigue"). What is clear is it's collapsing the lines between reality and science fiction, between mass movements and mass media.
At the beginning of the new century many people watching images of the World Trade towers exploding and then collapsing after hijacked jetliners crashed into them were reminded of the science fiction movie Independence Day.
The Godzilla films first produced in Japan in the 1950s and 60s, with a giant reptile product of radiation stomping on its cities and using death beams from its eyes, was seen by later critics as an anxiety response to the nuclear bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Cold War threat of an even greater nuclear conflagration. Nonetheless post-war Japan opted for an energy path that included use of "the peaceful atom," of commercial nuclear power. Now the whole world anxiously watches as an explosion rocks one of several Japanese nuclear plants that are in trouble as a result of that nation's massive earthquake and tsunami.
Last weekend, some in the Hollywood press wondered if the real-time disaster and tragedy in Japan will make people more reluctant to see The Battle of Los Angeles, a gritty new sci-fi film about aliens destroying that city in ways that might be too reminiscent of what's just happened in Japan and too much a reminder of what could happen to Los Angeles given that it sits atop a major earthquake fault line that created real human havoc as recently as 1994.
As a former war correspondent and believer in bottom-up democracy I've found myself almost addicted to watching the popular social-media linked uprisings of the Arab masses along with Libya's rebellion turned to war. CNN's Anderson Cooper got it right when he suggested that the natural tragedy in Japan may be a godsend for oil despot Muammar Gaddafi who can expect reduced media and online scrutiny of the unnatural disaster he's created with his ongoing repression and civilian massacres.
Of course people working in aid and development programs have long been aware of what they call the 'CNN effect' (that could also now be labeled the 'Facebook effect'). The tragedies most covered are likely to get the most aid and response, separate from any actual needs assessments. Just compare the global response to what's happening today in Japan and Libya to last year's earthquake in rural Pakistan or the ongoing killings and famines that have taken over two million lives in eastern Congo, one of those regions largely outside the sphere of the still expanding global information network.
Information distribution tools are both democratizing and potentially desensitizing a world where a majority of the human population now lives in cities, ever more young people have online access and even poor villagers in developing nations are as likely to have an image recording cell phone as a transistor radio.
The ability of diplomats and governments to respond to fast breaking images and first-person accounts of catastrophes that seem to be proliferating, in part because we can more easily see them, is both raising unrealistic expectations -- effective global disaster response in fewer than 72 hours for example-- while also putting pressure on major institutions and agencies to begin acting in ways that reflect the growing interdependence, vulnerabilities and shared moral universe of an increasingly crowded but also networked world.
Bill Clinton says the greatest regret of his presidency is not having intervened to stop the Rwanda genocide of 1994. One has to wonder if the world might have taken decisive action before 800,000 people were killed in just over three months had Rwandans had access to some of today's technologies including cellphone cameras and Twitter and Facebook accounts?
For Japanese victims awaiting rescue or Libyan rebels in a desperate struggle for freedom the answer to questions like that one may represent the difference between life and death.