By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com
At a neighborhood meeting with our Mayor last week there were questions about finding lost pets, zoning ordinances and people having too many lights on the outside of their houses.
And then there was the question of the night. The bomb dropper. The president of a large neighborhood association asked the Mayor of Dearborn, “What is the City of Dearborn doing about the coronavirus?”
The room went silent.
For just a moment, the mayor flashed a quarter of a smile across the right side of his face. He glanced down at the table top in front of him, recalibrating his response I suspect, in the way that politicians at every level must offer a substantive response to even the most inane, crackpot inquiries. Then he began, “Our emergency services have been drilling on response practices in preparation for any unlikely… ”
If you do a Google search on, “Things most likely to kill a person living in America”, you find that heart disease is our most prevalent lethal threat. This is followed by cancers. Not far down the list, the number 8 killer of Americans, is a broad category called “accidents”. Drill down into “accidents” and you learn that using a smartphone while driving is creating a great national cull of our highly mobile, highly connected population.
But nowhere on any list does “highly contagious, rapidly-proliferating, recently mutated exotic Asian viruses” appear. That is because, for the president of a neighborhood association- or anyone living in Dearborn- the threat of coronavirus is effectively nil.
In the United States, there are 1.5 million people hospitalized every year from accidents related to smartphone use. Last year the common flu killed 10,000 Americans. So far, this year the Centers for Disease Control say that, “At least 19 million people in the U.S. have experienced flu illnesses this season”. And as I type this, the acceleration of the spread of the largely non-fatal coronavirus half a world away from Dearborn, Michigan in a city most Americans couldn’t find on a globe, is decelerating.
But still, the coronavirus question came up. Why is that?
On June 1, 1980, Ted Turner launched the Cable News Network, or CNN, the first 24-hour news network. In the four decades since then, the way Americans consume news, and what is actually called “news”, has changed more than at any time in history.
Prior to 1980, the U.S. relied on predominantly 3 news networks that broadcast six hours of content each per day. Today there are at least 25 major network news media outlets in the U.S., all broadcasting across multiple outlets 24-hours, around the clock. That is a staggering 2300% increase in the amount of network news media we’re served every 24 hours in only four decades.
But it gets even more interesting. And dangerous.
In less than half the time it took for network news media to completely reinvent itself, only 16 short years ago, Mark Zuckerberg invented “participatory media”. Most people call it social media. When Zuckerberg started what was then called “The Face Book”, he did what most innovators do; he put something out there that would change the world before he invented the rules about how to use it. From edged tools to fire to printed words to nuclear weapons and instant communications, humans invent culture-changing technologies before they figure out the rules for how to best use them. We throw the new, culture-changing technologies out there and worry about figuring out how to best use them later. In the process, there is always calamity.
In the 16 years since Facebook began, the number of outlets with access to your 600 X 800 news screen went from 25 news outlets to… 1.69 billion individual users, each one vying for attention and relevance. Even more than the four-decade, 2300% proliferation of available news every 24 hours, the explosion of 1.69 billion individual broadcasters on Facebook (not to mention other social media outlets, like Twitter’s 330 million) has influenced the way we consume information, and confuse it with what is credible news.
The single deadliest thing about the coronavirus outbreak is the media frenzy that surrounds it. Coronavirus is a serious health threat, but not in Dearborn, Michigan. In the five years since it was first identified, and before this most recent outbreak, its impact on public health has been minimal compared to other health risks like cancer and distracted driving. Cancer and distracted driving just haven’t dominated social media and news media for the last seven days.
This revolution in how we consume media, and confuse it with news, is why a neighborhood association president in Dearborn, Michigan, 7,273 miles and 13 time zones away from Wuhan, China is now suddenly asking about coronavirus when the things that will likely kill her go basically ignored. And this is the very real threat.
Tom Demerly reports on Defense and Technology stories from around the world to TheAviationist.com, BusinessInsider.com and numerous other international news outlets.