New book excerpt! from Documenting Aftermath: Information Infrastructures in the Wake of Disasters, by Megan Finn

Documenting Aftermath (MIT Press) (Amazon) looks at Northern California earthquakes in 1868, 1906, 1989, and today, and asks how information orders shaped post-disaster knowledge. I examine the institutions, infrastructures, and practices that shape how information is produced, circulated, shared, and used as a means of surveillance and control. This excerpt is derived from Chapter 5, which is trying to answer the question: what could the present information order look like after an earthquake in California? – Meg Finn

Thank you, Megan and the MIT Press for sharing! – Culture Digitally

If your community had been hit by an earthquake, a strong storm, or other disaster, how would you communicate with your loved ones and your neighbors as well as with the experts charged with responding? Those impacted by a quake would want to assure loved ones of their well-being; some people would attempt to do this with a phone call, and many would notify their loved ones via Facebook or on other social media platforms. People might expect that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), a unit of the Department of Homeland Security, along with branches of local government, would help those affected, and that government officials would get on Twitter or television to tell people where to go for aid and how to be safe.

Contemporary US disaster plans imagine the techniques that the government, as part of the information order, introduced by the late historian C. A. Bayly, should utilize in order to produce information. Yet, prior to earthquakes in 1868 and 1906, discussed in Documenting Aftermath, the government did not plan for disaster response. For example, in the 1868 earthquake along Hayward Fault, earthquake publics struggled with the state’s role in disaster response. In 1868, no plan existed for how the government would react to an earthquake, and though there was demand for government intervention, there was very little. The follow-up to the calamitous 1906 Earthquake and Fire saw a larger local and federal government response to the disaster, but again, it was not based on a planned and publicly vetted disaster response process. The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake included planned informational responses—particularly in the production of public information– and illustrated the bureaucratization disaster response by the state. Throughout the Cold War, complex organizations had been put in place that were specifically charged with planning for and responding to disasters. The 1989 earthquake revealed that these plans envisioned a singular public, awaiting instructions from the government, transmitted by the media.

These disaster response plans themselves are a form of information infrastructure in the sense that they portray and are representations of bureaucratic technology. In other words, the disaster response plans describe the actions that professional disaster responders should take to produce public information. And the plans themselves are a material representation of disaster information practices. While these bureaucratic technologies in no way constitute the whole of the information order after a disaster, they are worthy of examination because experience tells us that disaster plans critically shape the government’s actions. In the context of the United States, disaster plans give an idealized picture of government involvement in post-disaster information infrastructure. Plans explain how to both preserve the past and make the future. The plans preserve the past by, in some sense, assuming that the goal is to help people return to a pre-disaster existence, and the plans attempt to make the future by guessing what needs to be done after a disaster.

In the aftermath of a disaster, today’s government disaster response plans imagine that it will assumes two roles: as a consumer of public information, via sociotechnical assemblages for situational awareness, and a producer of public information for citizens, the delivery of which is supported by a number of different public information infrastructures. In the case of disaster response plans, situational awareness involves centralizing records associated with incidents as well as informing disaster response both broadly and specifically in the area of public information. Situational awareness is thought to be a state of understanding the implications and context of a disaster such that one can make decisions about what to do next. The idea that the populace might be a source of situational awareness is a fairly new phenomenon. In the 1989 disaster response plans, earthquake publics were not imagined as a source of understanding for the government – knowledge of a crisis was to come from other disaster response professionals and government officials.

Situational awareness is a goal that is invoked often in new plans for disaster response, particularly around the practices of information and communication. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, federal post-disaster analysis blamed a lack of situational awareness for what was widely agreed to be an appalling disaster response: “The lack of communications and situational awareness had a debilitating effect on the Federal response.” In the government’s after disaster post mortem reports, situational awareness along with the information supposedly underpinning it is a way to call attention to what people understood to be happening at the time of the disaster, and serves as a target of blame for poor decisions made due to limited or incorrect information. It is a technique that serves people in power, who are often at a distance from a disaster, in making decisions about how to respond. It also legitimizes choices around the mobilization and distribution of resources.

Beyond the role of the government as a consumer of reports generated by earthquake publics under the rubric “situational awareness,” the government is a producer of public information. Government disaster response plans imagine a post-disaster space of communication and often contain explicit instructions for how disaster response professionals are to communicate with earthquake publics. Conceptions of (a singular) “the public” in contemporary disaster response plans aim to be inclusive in their outreach. The newest disaster response plans attempt to produce “public information” such that a wide swaths of “the public” can understand it. While the state increasingly looks to different disaster publics for situational awareness, the plans still treat the government as primary informers of citizens. While the government’s vision of the public attempts to be inclusive, its conception of itself as an information producer is thoroughly hierarchical, both producing and processing information through the Incident Management System and the National Incident Management System (NIMS). The Incident Command System is a program that intentionally implements “institutional isomorphism.” That is, the idea is that everyone who shows up to respond to a disaster in a professional capacity understands the terminology. NIMS is a highly standardized and uniform organizational scheme that envisions a singular path for producing authoritative public information through the Joint Information System.

The instructions for creating public information aim for the government to be the informational authority. Yet, after a disaster, the government must work within an information order that is partially of its own making, through its production of information for earthquake publics, but also participate in an information order dominated by social media companies. In the United States, social media companies mediate both how people get news and interpersonal relationships, and are influential in shaping contemporary event epistemology. Early Internet proponents imagined that it might be a platform that would make it possible for all voices to be broadcast; ideally social media platforms allow for a plurality of voices – unlike the government plans. On the one hand, the public information infrastructure of today is conceived of in terms of the production of documents by the many—the masses of Google, Twitter, and Facebook users, whose voices are broadcast far beyond the streets from where they access these platforms. On the other hand, the government response plans describe hierarchical organizational systems, such as the Incident Command System and NIMS for producing authoritative information to be distributed to earthquake publics. Though disaster response plans and sociotechnical media platforms are both used to produce information about a disaster, one could characterize bureaucratic technology and information technology as forming a dialectical relationship.

Yet, over the last decade, the government has been adjusting its practices to communicate with potential earthquake publics on platforms that they already use. As crisis informatics researchers Axel Bruns and Jean Burgess observe, “Over the past decade, social media have gone through a process of legitimation and official adoption, and they are now becoming embedded as part of the official communications apparatus of many commercial and public sector organizations—in turn providing platforms like Twitter with their own source of legitimacy.” Social media are a key dimension of the contemporary information order. A series of research projects over the last decade have examined varied “emergent” social media practices after US disasters and shown how central social media corporations are to organizing post-disaster information practices and earthquake publics.

Social media platforms fit in well with the government’s disaster plans because they can be integrated into the hierarchical and centralized Joint Information System. Platforms like Twitter can also give the government a venue for directly distributing its “public information.”  The government maintains a presence on crowdsourcing websites such as Twitter and Facebook, and uses these platforms to broadcast its messages. In 1989, disaster plans relied on mainstream media outlets to circulate the governments’ messages, and disaster planners would simply hope that people would turn on their radios or televisions to receive information via the Emergency Broadcast System. In some sense, the government, which uses Twitter, now has more control than ever over its communications to citizens.

The government also uses social media to make sense of a disaster. When FEMA used social media to improve situational awareness after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, social media was important not just for circulating public information but also helping the government understand, and thus govern, the disaster. Outside the government, researchers and businesses have recognized social media’s potential value as a source of information about disasters, particularly as a source contributing to perpetual situational awareness. Ordinary people’s voices are potentially folded into the government’s situational awareness, which in turn informs the production of government public information. Even though there is more room for the voices of various earthquake publics to be incorporated into the government’s imagination of what is happening after a disaster, the government is still in the powerful position of deciding (or not) to listen to and legitimize certain voices, and these public information infrastructures—especially the ones including social media—have important limitations built into them.

The situational awareness that is produced by Twitter frequently relies on a “messy assemblage” of other services, thereby reshaping and deforming the world it attempts to bring the analyst closer to. Lucy Suchman describes some of these in her discussion of the messy assemblage that produces situational awareness during war. In military situations, the various media used to create situational awareness enables people who operate drones remotely to believe they understand a situation enough to decide who to kill. And Suchman makes it clear that the stakes of situational awareness— “the messy assemblage of socio-technical mediation” — are high: identifying objects incorrectly can lead to accidentally killing civilians. The stakes for situational awareness in the disaster context are different; in theory, situational awareness allows decision makers and those in charge of resources to decide what to do as well as where to deploy those resources. Theoretically, Twitter data sets could enable a small number of key decision makers to decide to use their resources to save some people, while others, who may not be visible on social media, perish. The distortions that the messy assemblages producing situational awareness introduce are not obvious because many pieces are owned by social media companies, which are not transparent about what data they collect, what they do with it, and what portion of it is available to whom.

Today, earthquake publics are often what Tarleton Gillespie calls “calculated publics.” They are calculated through the design of aspects of public information infrastructures—social media corporations—and adoption of these sociotechnical practices in ways that reify the limitations of these calculated publics. And it is not just social media platform companies that calculate publics. The government has a calculated public embedded in its imagined post-disaster information practices as well. In disaster response plans, the government envisions inclusive earthquake publics, with different languages and abilities, but these same plans also imagine making sense of disaster impacts by using particular technologies that are not always inclusive. When I examine the role of information practices and technologies in disaster planning, seemingly oppositional forces are intertwined in symbiotic ways. People seek to reach government disaster response organizations using social media, government disaster response organizations use social media to reach the earthquake publics they are trying to help, social media companies make products to account for people after a disaster, and researchers build tools to help government disaster response organizations attempt to use social media information in their response activities. Social media technologies can, and are, being integrated into the centralizing information practices described in disaster response plans.