I am a great believer in the power of technology to transform business and society. However, the manner in which this transformation works is emergence: a gazillion small decisions by millions of individuals making personal choices translates into a world reworked by wholesale technological changes. The same, however, is decidely not the case with the centralized, bureaucratic planning that seems to pervade the discussion around disaster preparation and recovery. This seems to be true even of the digerati seeking to figure out how the web and its denizens might help in the next disaster.
Jeff Jarvis, a man for whom I have the greatest respect and admiration, held a meeting at the Web 2.0 conference last week, entitled Recovery 2.0. A bunch of folks showed, like Evelyn Rodriguez (who was washed into prominence by the tsunami), Michael Powell (former head of the FCC), and Craig Newmark (of Craig's List), to name only a few of the two dozen or so folks there. Oh, and me. Jeff started by making the joke that he had almost called the activity "Disaster 2.0" but thought better of it. But as the evening wore on, I began to wonder.
Other disasters are inevitable. Witness what has occured just since Katrina: Rita, mudslides in Guatemala, the earthquake in Kashmir, and a flood in New Hampshire. This is, of course, ignoring the endemic privations in the Third World which we have grown inured to. However, when disasters strike the heart of developed countries, and we are unable to do much, it shatters many of our preconceptions about our capacity to control events, and we are undone by that paralyzing awareness.
We -- despite the cultural folklore of omnipotence -- are living on a faultline. I am not specifcally alluding to the recent 25% estimate of a Richter 7 earthquake hitting the Bay Area in the next 20 years, but to the fabric of our society. We are not actually applying either market forces (for the free market types out there) or government control (for those who believe the public sector should be calling the shots) to really organize ourselves to survive these disasters, and as a direct consequence, when these disasters occur we can expect the results to be worse, not better, than in the past.
I will avoid a long polemic about the nuttiness of the status quo regarding disasters, which can be summarized in this way:
- Disaster strikes
- We are unprepared
- Devastation demonstrates how unprepared we are, and everyone wrings hands, points fingers, etc.
- Large upwelling of charitible response
- The dispossessed try to get on with their lives, and are soon forgotten
- Infrastructure is rebuilt at public expense
- People put head back into sand
I will also avoid a jeremiad on the increasing likelihood of ever more large scale disasters: hurricanes of greater length and severity (how about a thirty foot surge hitting Manhattan?), the imminent avian flu pandemic (and we are using the wrong approach to doling out the vaccine) , or terrorist dirty bomb at the Super Bowl. Even with the same old disasters we grew up with, why are we so unprepared, and why do we follow these patterns?
The web is a place where ideas can catch on, and infect the world. I would like to throw an idea out there, and see if it can catch.
First, we are culturally unwilling to accept the need for collective preparedness, even in the face of monumental disasters. Technology -- even the Web -- will not allow us to collectively leap into action and save the day with three days prior notice of a hurricane touching shore. Given the certainty of other disasters, you think we would move to a new footing, culturally. But the reality in that most people just want to get back to business as usual.
Until we have a cultural revolution, or a complete revamping of the models of civil authority, when a disaster strikes you are going to be completely and profoundly on your own. We will fall back to friends, family, neighbors, and the kindness of strangers. That collection may include people far away, connected to you by the Web, but we can't expect those who are supposed to be reponsible for our safety and welfare to be able to do very much, because the role of civil authority has eroded. People today are profoundly ambivalent of the role of government, even local government, even during emergencies. And that clock won't be turned back.
The transition we are going through, ushered in by technologies like the Web, is bringing people back together after decades of the unraveling of civic involvement. Participation in groups like the Kiwanis and the Rotary, even the PTA, is at a low ebb. The rise of the exurb has let people self-affiliate to the point that cultural divides are more deep and entrenched than ever before. The Web may be a real hope in this regard, unless it just winds up being a place for us to self-affiliate, again. And even if it offers a way to reboot civic involvement, it may take decades before that impact percolates through, and this quiet revolution reaches out past the early adopters. In the meantime, we are in a shadow zone, where the Web acts as a secondary means to organize and respond, but not yet the primary solution. And the primary mechanisms are failing -- radio systems don't intercommunicate, civic organizations and governmental agencies have little or adversarial interactions, special interests push back hall deals with politicos, and the poor are moved into trailer parks and disenfranchised. The Web hasn't transformed that. Not yet, anyway.
We can't look to government or other large organizations, per se, to help the revolution along. They are directly threatened by a new notion of civil authority, one that is distributed, and out-of-control, in the Kevin Kelly sense. And we are so divided in our worldviews that it is impossible to imagine getting consensus on a national or international level as to how we should move forward to diminish the impact of disasters. All we can expect -- again -- is the intensification on the status quo: more planning commissions, more reports, more white guys in dark suits speaking earnestly into the microphones on Sunday policy shows, more layers of bureaucracy, more moving of the chairs around the conference room table.
Here are the preconditions for the new model of civil authority, and what we should be doing to get there:
- Push hard for municipal/local wifi in every location. Push for political candidates who favor this. Push for a wifi mesh in your area that is disaster capable: where there are enough wifi nodes to continue to cover the area even in the face of disaster, where long-lived battery systems are in place, and the wifi elements are safe from the elements.
- Get civic organizations onto the Web, courtesy of the municial/local wifi. Work to get them intercommunicating using web-based solutions.
- Indoctrinate the children in the schools on how to use Web-based solutions in emergenices. They can teach their parents when the time comes.
- Municipal/local wifi -- when widely available -- will lead to an explosion in wifi capable devices, specifically, a next generation of wifi-capable cell phones. We can expect low-cost offgrid rechargers to become available -- solar, hand cracked, whatever -- so that individuals can actually remain online during disasters in this era: Disaster 2.0.
I think it will take years to get to Disaster 2.0, but it's coming. It won't make the storms blow less hard, and -- human stupidity being what it is -- it won't stop people from rebuilding homes on the side of the volcano, eroding the barrier islands and marshes, or living among millions of others on an island that cannot be evacuated in the face of any of the predictable disasters likely to strike. But Disaster 2.0 infrastructure can provide a new means of civil control -- and potentially a bottom-up, flexible, and adaptive one -- when disasters do strike: unlike today, where top-down, bureaucratic approaches are simply incapable of keeping up with the world in which we live.
That is the key meme that needs to be spread: today's techniques for responding to disasters are release 1.0, and totally obsolete. So obsolete that they will not work, and will actually cause more problems than they solve, and partly because people expect them to work. We need a pervasive investment -- at the local or municipal level -- in disaster-resistent wifi mesh technologies. Once that is in place, the rest will follow -- organizations and individuals will be able to tap into and participate in organic civil response to disaster, and a bottom-up, adaptive, and flexible response will be possible. Without Disaster 2.0, we will continue to fumble, flounder, and fail.
But don't look to the Feds, or even regional government. Do it locally. Get your homeowners association to do it. Or the Neighborhood Watch. Or The Kiwanis. Or elect new folks into onto the school board who roll it out as an educational tool -- with disaster preparedness as a secondary goal. Or build it into the libraries. Whatever. Just get on it. Act like the next one is only a week away.