November 12, 2012

Curiosity's not a bad thing in itself, but there's a reason for the old adage about its killing the cat. Interest, wonder, and a hunger for knowledge are all good things. But curiosity, like any mere impulse, must be subordinated to good judgment. A story linked below reports that victims of Hurricane Sandy now have to contend with "disaster tourists" as they try to recover what's left of their former lives.

About 73,000 homes and businesses remain without power, according to the Associated Press story — a figure that no longer includes my own parents, who just got their power back yesterday afternoon in the northwest corner of New Jersey. The situation is worse in coastal areas, and especially on Long Island according to the story. The reporter writes:

Garbage trucks, hulking military vehicles and mud-caked cars move slowly through a Staten Island waterfront neighborhood still reeling from Superstorm Sandy's storm surge. Then comes an outlier: a spotless SUV with three passengers peering out windows at a mangled home choked with sea grass.

Residents recognize the occupants right away. They're disaster tourists, people drawn to the scene of a tragedy to glimpse the pictures they've seen on television come to life.

On one level, who can blame them? Is it wrong to try to connect with the reality of the storm? Might such a desire come from noble impulses, such as to understand better how one's neighbors are suffering? Is it not important that people know what's going on in the affected areas? Yes, but disaster tourism it's still a bad idea.

The writer rightly references television; he or she could have added "Internet." One of the consequences of the Internet and anytime/anywhere computing is that we are tempted to always be plugged in. We scarcely appreciate that as we do so we become consumers, not producers, takers not makers. We become a culture of voyeurs who have forgotten how to mind our own business. Consider this quote from the piece:

"The gawking was amazing last week," said Joanne McClenin, whose home was filled with water five feet high on the night Sandy came ashore. "It was kind of offensive as a homeowner, because I felt violated."

The lady is right: the gawkers are reducing her and her neighbors to a spectacle; they are consuming her misery for their entertainment.

To reiterate: it's not wrong for people to be curious, and there is even a duty for news organizations and other official personnel to report. But disaster tourism is a step too far. If one wants to see what's happening and one doesn't have an occupational reason to be there — e.g., a reporter, relief worker or claims adjuster — then go there to help. Bring supplies, offer labor, but don't go there just to consume someone else's pain.

Anthony O'Donnell has covered technology in the insurance industry since 2000, when he joined the editorial staff of Insurance & Technology. As an editor and reporter for I&T and the InformationWeek ...