There’s a saying that all news is local, and if it ain’t local, it’s not the news. So we’ve been watching the public anxiety over the BP oil spill begin to wane as it, far away from most Americans, drifts off the urgent news cycle. If the slick were overlaid on New York City, we’d still be talking — angry, perhaps, at pollution stretching from mid-New Jersey to central Connecticut — but the Gulf is so distant. Larry King has moved on to cover Lady Gaga; NPR is shifting gears to politics and the Middle East; a public consumed with the latest viral fads begins to yawn at the prospect of more of the same news dripping from the ocean through August.
The problem goes deeper that ocean pollution, as troubling as that may be. Communication is escalating into faster streams of massive information sets. IBM researcher Martin Wattenberg told Wired a year ago that the biggest problem facing society today isn’t storing exabytes (1,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes, about 21 of which equal all monthly Internet traffic) or zettabytes (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes, 42 of which would store all human words ever spoken aloud), but simply learning how to understand big data. We’re awash in news and advertisements and public opinions. The human need to filter out noise, to make some sense of the world, could be why polarizing outlets such as MSNBC and FoxNews are ascendant — as we all listen in only to self-reinforcing views of the world, cocooned in our little flattering bubbles. When information creation and storage reach the point of cacophonous clamoring, humans may tune out altogether. Geography used to keep us apart, to forge new cultures and languages and to ignore disasters far away at sea. Now, with knowledge passing all borders, the only way to stay sane may be to forget pollution altogether.