Generating responsibility from transparency

A few days ago I complained about the rampant mediocrity of science news headlines and how their repugnance detracts from the actual content of the articles that they introduce. As a person who frequently scrutinizes scientific journalism as a topic for my own blog entries, clearly I think that it is important enough to scrutinize. And on the broader level, journalism of all kinds is important to read and critique, because the perfusion of information is the pneuma of empowerment for communities both globally and locally -- at least, for those who so choose to use it as such. But the proliferation of information also raises at least one significant ethical question: what exactly are we obligated to do once we know about something terrible happening in the world?

We cannot ignore the substantial influence that the interaction between Google's blog-friendly search algorithms and the growing enthusiasm for amateur blogging has had on international news coverage1. Last year, the effects of amateur news media made major headlines when Twitter became the dominant source of up-to-date information about Iranian protests following corrupt presidential election results in 2009. Although microblogging may not always be as insightful or informative as a good piece, its clear that the affairs of the world--including tragedies--are more transparent now than ever before.

Presumably, global tragedy rates exhibit some type of proportionality with global population size, meaning the "per-capita tragedy rate," r varies with the population size, s in the form

r = ks

where k > 1 if it is a direct relationship and < 1 if it is an inverse relationship. My inference is that the percentage of humans on the planet who suffer is more closely related to changes population size than changes in human nature that permit or prevent the occurrence of global tragedies. Following from this assumption, the only difference about global tragedy today than 100 or 1000 years ago, after adjusting for population growth, is that we can know more about more tragedies more easily than ever before. Whereas once, we could live in blissful ignorance while we pursed the American Dream and discarded tragedies as outliers of the human condition, now we must be almost neglectfully malicious to pursue the same dream if we have our web browser home page set to the New York Times.

Princeton philosopher Peter Singer has gained a modest amount of recognition for his ethical stance about our obligation to address global poverty. He compares our obligations for addressing global poverty with those we have if we came upon an infant face down in a shallow pond while we were wearing expensive shoes. Most people, he argues, would sacrifice the shoes to save a life, when such a simple intervention as wading into the pond and turning the baby over would avert the tragedy. He believes global poverty is evident enough that just as we have a moral obligation to sacrifice a pair of shoes to save a life, we ought to donate some of our income to charitable organizations that reduce harm abroad.

I've never fully agreed with his stance. After all, I don't know if our obligations to save the drowning baby would be quite the same if the baby wasn't right in front of us. There is little accountability that if we sent a life-vest to a foreign country, it would actually get properly used to reduce drowning-induced infant mortality. In the same way, many "charitable organizations" don't function very efficiently, and sometimes we have to go out of our way to donate. I don't know if we have a moral obligation to go out of our way to walk near lakes where children might be drowning, so the thought experiment doesn't necessarily apply. Furthermore, I'm not convinced that we live in a global community that is quite so morally integrated--yet. Nonetheless, I'm glad that Singer has brought the important issue of global responsibility to the surface that will surly become increasingly relevant in years to come.

Living on a grad-student budget, it's easy for me to justify pinching my pennies when I pass a homeless person or get accosted by Red Cross volunteers on the street. To an extent, turning a blind eye to apparent tragedies isn't such a new phenomenon, as anyone who has ever stepped over a bum in a major city can relate to. After all, we simply cannot help EVERYONE, and this overwhelming precedent makes it so hard to choose who deserves our extra coins that many of us never end up donating. Perhaps the white noise of global tragedy makes it even easier to ignore, since any contribution seems so insignificant when measured on the global scale.

When a catastrophe is romantically terrible enough, it can often garner focused world-wide support in a way never before possible (for example, the earthquake in Haiti). But for a nation like the United States, which ontologically values the life of every individual so much, it seems a bit strange that we only mobilize so effectively for gigantic tragedies, even though limited generosity and resources can easily explain our discretionary spending. If we all stand to benefit financially from globalization, it seems only fair that global trade generates increasing obligations, especially for those who vehemently oppose national protectionism. Perhaps Peter Singer's analogy is a bit far fetched, but I believe we ought to start developing some model for the responsibilities that emerge from our expanding literacy of the world's problems.

UPDATE 5/11/2010
Regarding my footnote about how to save the news industry, a cover story by James Fallows in this month's Atlantic: How to save the news.


  1. Although there will always be room for improvement in the way that news is communicated to the public, I think that real newspapers and journals tend to be more accountable for the information they publish than other types of news media, including social media like blogs or facebook. As I noted in this blog post, even my critique of science journalism is most acutely directed at the blogenration (of which FogMag is included, I suppose!). Because I believe professional journalism is better journalism, I strongly support support a premium content ecosystem micropayment model as a good way to direct profit into news media outlets in this century dominated by news carnivores like myself who want content from many sources, but can't afford to pay for 30 magazine subscriptions.
  2. For those who are interested, click here to download my RSS feed list, which you can import into google reader or another RSS reader of your choice.

    Published on July 3, 2011 in Other

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