Listen to Pilot Light

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Too much information, no context

You can't judge what is happening in this world from the news. The media focus on things HAPPENING in a place can make a small event seem like countrywide chaos. Often, we simply have too much information about too little--we hear about the crimes, catastrophes, political upheavals and so on that make life treacherous and almost nothing about daily life. That we hear, immediately, about almost everything bad going on from every corner of the earth, can make it seem that there are no safe places to visit, no places without turmoil.

We do live in tumultuous times. There are simply more people interacting, struggling to gain a piece of the pie (whatever pie they seem to think represents the prize). And the news media cover those events extensively. Rioting, looting, and general mayhem are their star attractions. The fact that two blocks away life might go on normally, doesn't generate ad revenue.

I've found myself living in places when the US State Department issued travel alerts talking of the danger of traveling there. We'd never noticed anything special and shook our heads. So, when the deluge of bad news makes me begin to think that staying home might be the sanest, cleverest thing to do, I remind myself of an event. A number of years ago, while working in Hong Kong, I took a trip to Taiwan and then on to Seoul, South Korea.

My wife had never been to Korea and decided she would meet me there. When I arrived, a few hours after her scheduled arrival, the taxi driver didn't want to take me to the hotel. There were riots going on in that part of town. We argued. I asked him to take me as close as possible. He refused and soon a policeman was involved. He checked his watch and informed the taxi driver that the riots were only scheduled until five, and were well over. So we went to the hotel, the driver reluctantly rolling down an empty street that still smelled strongly of tear gas.

My wife was at the hotel, oblivious to the riot and wondering where I'd gotten to (this happened in the dark ages--before cell phones).

I know damn well that if that riot took place today, we'd be bombarded with close ups of the police in riot gear, the students throwing Molotov cocktails and all that, and it would have appears that the city was in the throes of violence. It being Korea, the rioters were undergrads, the violence contained to a four block area and no one really cared.

A couple of days later, on Buddha's birthday, we met a plain-clothes cop whose job was to watch the riots and target the organizers, the real hot heads. Plain clothes seems to work differently there. He had on a shirt and jeans, but carried three walkie talkies, a baton and a gun. He seemed to enjoy his work. He gave us a mini tour of the art district. It was a weird time and an unforgettable experience.

There was no media coverage. We found out later that this was the third day of the rioting. If we'd seen news coverage of it before we left, it might have given us pause. I feel certain that on television it would have seemed like Seoul was a dangerous madhouse. It was just odd.

Now a lot of the violence going on in the world, even that on the media, is widespread, deadly and everything it seems to be. But some of it is localized, or otherwise controlled. But seen through the eyes of twitter and news blogs, it can all seem the same. Without putting our own boots on the ground, we have no way to judge these things. They all play out on the same stage and are described with the same vocabulary. And that makes the world seem scarier than it needs to seem.

Certainly we need to move cautiously, avoid places where travelers are targeted, or law and order is totally out the window, but there is a wide and wonderful world out there, with some great people in it (who seldom make the news). And while travelers need to pay attention, letting the news media (or by government statements, for that matter) keep us at home because they don't know what is really going on (and generally they don't) would be a shame.