Friday, June 15, 2012

O Brave New World

Miranda: O brave new world / That has such people in't!
Prospero: 'Tis new to thee.

                                            - The Tempest (V.i.183-184)

Three people were shot and killed at the University of Alberta shortly after midnight. News on this story is still breaking. Also, my eldest daughter becomes a teenager today, so I've been mentally processing this story in the context of the world she is growing up in.

I first found out about the incident this morning through Twitter. I suppose I could have got the news watching TV or listening to the radio, but my usual morning routine is a cup of coffee and going online to check email and a few of my favorite blogs. Despite its simplicity, Twitter is a breakthrough in communications; anyone in the world can know instantly when something happens. There is a "six degrees of separation" element, where someone you follow can retweet someone they follow, and so on. In my feed, the first mention of the shooting was a retweet of a reporter's post which came in at 1:20am, less than an hour after the incident. By the time I woke up several people I follow has also retweeted the news so, on Twitter at least, it was hard to miss.

Around 11am the police held a press conference and released the name of a person of interest. Within a few seconds this was all over Twitter, almost like an Amber Alert as there is a manhunt ongoing. A few minutes after that people were tweeting this person's Facebook page, Twitter account, and even his profile from a dating website called Plenty of Fish. The speed at which this information has been discovered and shared is amazing. And of course, we are all psychoanalysing this person based on his tweets and profile pictures. It's not quite a lynch mob, but there are similarities.

It appears that the shooting occurred during an armed robbery, and the victims are all employees of the armoured car security company that was servicing the ATMs in HUB Mall on the University campus. I have to admit, and I mean no disrespect to those affected by the killings, that when I learned about the robbery aspect of the tragedy I was in some way relieved. The awfulness, the horror is still there, but at least we understand the motive and are not left wondering why. I lived in Montreal during the Polytechnique massacre in 1989 and the reasons for that tragedy were incomprehensible. When an unexpected trauma hits, I think we feel disoriented while we try to somehow fit these shocking new facts into our understanding of the world. Being able to connect the dots helps. Having no understanding of why a madman decided to target 14 women made the Montreal massacre that much more traumatic. Maybe it's as simple as knowing the shooter wanted money, and isn't looking for more victims. We hope, anyway - he's still at large. (Also, the Ecole Polytechnique killing spree lasted about 90 minutes from Marc Lepine's arrival to his suicide. I wonder how differently those events might have gone in the age of smart phones and Twitter.)

As this story was unfolding, there were some complaints by students about - well, I'm not sure, I guess they weren't notified properly, or quickly enough. Enough that the U of A responded to questions on their website updates, explaining that the Crisis Management Team was activated and how their decisions were made. In this case they were assured by police that the suspect was no longer on campus. Two things struck me here, the first being that to me the speed and quality of communications has been excellent. I'm old enough to remember when word-of-mouth and the radio were the prime sources of breaking news. Now all you need is an internet connection and you can know something virtually as it happens. If you're twenty and you grew up with this technology, your perspective is different.

The other thing I noticed was that here we are right in the middle of a developing crisis with many unknowns, and people seem to be questioning the actions or lack of action of the U of A. The crisis team apparently did not want to alarm students needlessly, and their information at the time was that there was no longer any danger on campus. Some students expect everything instantaneously, and also don't understand imperfect decision-making in the fog of war. This is a generational fault line. On the older side there is an underappreciation for the connectedness of technologies and the expectation of on-demand information that the younger group has known most of their lives. The younger generation has little experience in any sort of crisis, and does not always appreciate that sometimes you have to do the best with what you have. Slow but pragmatic vs. immediate but demanding.

Well, Miss, this is the brave new world in which you're coming into your own. Technology changes, and sometimes people change as a result. Bad stuff happens, but remember we're just a bunch of people mainly trying to do the right things. Happy birthday, sweetheart.

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