On the Perishability of Novelty


Katsushika Hokusai's "The Great Wave off Kanagawa" from the "Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji" woodblock print series.

For the last two hours, the television in my motel room has been broadcasting the BBC’s coverage of yesterday’s earthquake and tsunami in Japan. I flew out of Manila yesterday to attend a cousin’s wedding in Tacloban, and for better or for worse, that event will be inextricably entwined in my memory with images of rampaging waters and tearing streets.

I typically refrain from what I view as social and political commentary—especially when they concern matters that fall under the category of current events. The reason for my abstinence is simple: given the sheer size, scale and scope of the mediasphere, what else can one more voice contribute to the debate apart from increasing the cacophony?

I can put my reservations aside, in this case at least, because the sense of drama, tragedy and urgency evoked by the news coming from Japan is simply the beginning of what I feel to be an all too familiar cycle.  Not too long ago, we dealt with the Haiti earthquake, and before that, the Indonesia tsunami. In both cases (and in countless others) weeks of intense media coverage and global aid eventually petered out—long before the urgent need for both had been exhausted. I believe it’s safe to predict that the same will happen in this particular event.

And I say that without the slightest trace of cynicism or resignation. The observation that disasters have a media shelf-life is hardly original: once events have exhausted their interest-generating and interest-sustaining potential—once they have ceased to be news, in short—the media agencies move on to other, more novel, more newsworthy things. This is not deplorable in its own right, but when the amount of attention given to an event correlates to the amount of aid it generates, then focus becomes a question of ethics, and the need to arbitrate the divergent agendas of news and need agencies begins to arise.

In any case, arbitrating those agendas is something for which I have neither patience nor competence. But pointing out why they diverge—perhaps even necessarily so—can be a constructive exercise.

On the one hand, catastrophes and cataclysms are cyclical—and they are repetitive enough to be almost mundane (even more so in a country as disaster prone as the Philippines). On the other hand, the lives destroyed or disrupted by these tragedies are unique and irreplaceable—and the insight that we can never calculate the value of a human life continues to provide the single greatest argument against utilitarian ethics. The tension generated by such a divergence—the cyclical versus the linear, the repetitive versus the singular—finds itself represented in the conflict between a news agency’s search for the next novelty and an aid organization’s attempts to maintain a donor’s interest. The former acknowledges that life must move on; the latter appreciates that for some, it simply cannot.

So rather than attempting to reconcile two viewpoints whose contradictions are fruitful for the most part, I would advise managing around their differences instead. Rather than denigrating the (perhaps necessarily) limited attention span of the media as crass sensationalism, perhaps we should already assume its inevitability and recognize that we have a narrow window, at best, within which to generate support and build the infrastructure necessary to sustain it after the world’s attention has withered away. This admittedly adds enormous pressure on already taxed aid agencies, but the fact is, whether or not agencies prepare for it, donors will eventually divert their attention and resources to other causes—if only because there will never be an end to sources of human tragedy.

And at the end of the day, perhaps there is even something to laud in our human capacity for forgetfulness. Perhaps that very ability to move on, to shift our attention away from the dramatic ruptures of cataclysmic events back to the prosaic tasks of daily life, constitutes the very fabric of the human spirit’s resilience. We make best use of our capacity to respond to the tragic by honoring its occasional upsurge—rather than disparaging its eventual demise.

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