Information Infrastructures in the Wake of Disasters
An examination of how changing public information infrastructures shaped people's experience of earthquakes in Northern California in 1868, 1906, and 1989.
When an earthquake happens in California today, residents may look to the United States Geological Survey for online maps that show the quake's epicenter, turn to Twitter for government bulletins and the latest news, check Facebook for updates from friends and family, and count on help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). One hundred and fifty years ago, however, FEMA and other government agencies did not exist, and information came by telegraph and newspaper. In Documenting Aftermath, Megan Finn explores changing public information infrastructures and how they shaped people's experience of disaster, examining postearthquake information and communication practices in three Northern California earthquakes: the 1868 Hayward Fault earthquake, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, and the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. She then analyzes the institutions, policies, and technologies that shape today's postdisaster information landscape.
Finn argues that information orders—complex constellations of institutions, technologies, and practices—influence how we act in, experience, and document events. What Finn terms event epistemologies, constituted both by historical documents and by researchers who study them, explain how information orders facilitate particular possibilities for knowledge. After the 1868 earthquake, the Chamber of Commerce telegraphed reassurances to out-of-state investors while local newspapers ran sensational earthquake narratives; in 1906, families and institutions used innovative techniques for locating people; and in 1989, government institutions and the media developed a symbiotic relationship in information dissemination. Today, government disaster response plans and new media platforms imagine different sources of informational authority yet work together shaping disaster narratives.
Having experienced the 1989 Loma Prieta, I can testify that we experience earthquakes through information infrastructures in the buildings we inhabit, the roads that we drive on, the panic and emergency responses that occur, and images and news of 'the event.' This is a fascinating and revealing book on the different 'information orders' in the past 150 years that have prepared us, explained to us, and have otherwise filled in these imminent upheavals, which lie beneath our feet and haunt our everyday lives.
Ronald E. Day, Professor, Indiana University, Bloomington
Finn brings powerful ideas about historically specific information orders to scenes of earthquake disaster, providing critical perspective on information infrastructure (and its intensely relational qualities), on ways such infrastructure shapes and is shaped by disaster, and on how this stages what I would call disaster ethics – the responsibilities different social actors have before, during, and in the long wake of disaster. Highly recommended.
Kim Fortun, Professor of Anthropology, University of California, Irvine
Acute crises, and especially disasters, generate shock, disruption, and uncertainty. In response, communities rely on familiar media sources to share information, to seek help or offer support, and to make sense of it all. In this rigorously researched and beautifully written book, Megan Finn provides a compelling account of the role of 'public information infrastructures' in crisis informatics. The book provides a detailed and fascinating account of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, using it to pose ambitious questions of infrastructural trust, ownership and durability, which could not be more relevant to the digital media environment.
Jean Burgess, Professor, Digital Media Research Centre, Queensland University of Technology