In Moby Dick, Herman Melville described the Pacific Ocean as the “tide-beating heart of the earth that makes all coasts a bay in it.” Describing the interconnectedness of the lands ringing the Pacific Rim he wrote “the same waves wash the moles of the new-built Californian towns, but yesterday…..lave the faded but still gorgeous skirts of the Asiatic lands, older than Abraham; while all between float milky-ways of coral isles, and low-lying, endless, unknown Archipelagoes, and impenetrable Japans.” On Friday March 11, 2011, mankind was humbled by a 9.0 magnitude quake striking the northeastern coast of Japan and triggering a Tsunami whose force quickly silenced thousands of voices near Sendai and damaged harbors – including Crescent City and Santa Cruz – 5,000 miles to the east along the North American coastline. Nature will always bind what man’s competitive psyche seeks to distance. Hokusai’s woodblock print “The Great Wave” part of his series Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji has long been a favorite of mine; mesmerized by the beauty of the wave, it is only now, newly humbled, that I truly grasp the precarious position of the fishing boats depicted in the print.
Last weekend I attended the Point Reyes Book’s third Geography of Hope conference bringing together people, place and literature to discuss water as both a life-giving and a life-taking force. As rain poured outside in biblical proportions, the Japanese people were never far from our consciousness in this community located on the San Andreas Fault so near the Pacific Ocean. An inspiring gathering, we listened rapturously to poets, writers and scientists – including Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman, William Least Heat Moon, Tim Palmer, Philip Fradkin, Eddy Harris, Peter Gleick, Evelyn Reilly and Julia Whitty — speak about rivers, lakes and oceans and their hopes and fears for the health of our planet. The desire to teach children – through art, literature and science – about the connections between humans and nature was a major theme, but concerns about the potential of social media and hand-held technology to disconnect society from the natural world was an undercurrent of the gathering.
My work as a digital archivist working in academic libraries fosters my belief that social media can be leveraged to enhance our connections with and understanding of the natural world. If any good can be drawn from the tragedy of the Japanese earthquake and Tsunami, it is the knowledge that this is likely the best documented disaster in recent history, and this information will be repurposed for constructive use. Numerous digital images and video recordings of the Tsunami’s destructive power were captured by survivors of these events and uploaded for sharing on social media sites. This week a BBC article published on March 21, 2011 “Japan Tsunami to Help Predict Future Waves” reported how scientists will use this data to study Tsunamis. At the 2011 Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) Webwise conference, Dr. Francine Berman, Vice President for Research at the Rennslaer Polytechnic and Dr. Joshua Greenberg, Director of Digital Information Technology and Dissemination of Knowledge Program at the Sloan Foundation delivered keynote addresses making several complimentary points: the role of the “crowd and the social network” in the generation of observational research data; the need for a macroscopic approach to gather comprehensive data sets and analyze and visualize data at scale; and the need for archivists, librarians and museum professionals to be central players in data curation workflows to appraise, manage, preserve and provide access to data supporting ongoing research. Its important to note that this kind of work is underway. The National Science Foundation (NSF) funded DataONE a multi-institutional and cross-discipline collaboration of universities and organizations including the California Digital Library to lay the foundation for a distributed framework and sustainable cyberinfrastructure that meets the needs of science and society for open, persistent, robust, and secure access to well-described and easily discovered Earth observational data.
Webwise also featured workshops and sessions on Libraries and Museums engaged in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Learning. STEM is part of President Obama’s program “Educate to Innovate,” a campaign to improve the participation and performance of America’s students in these disciplines. Teachers, librarians and museum staff are developing many fun and engaging learning modules using social media and technology. One particular module — Habit Tracker – caught my eye; I saw a demo of the prototype at the conference. Using the Apps developed for iPhone and iPad2 technology, Habitat Tracker will help students learn about the nature of science by learning to ask their own questions about the natural world, recording observations, performing analysis and participating in peer review with fellow students.
A humble respect, enjoyment and love of the natural world and a belief in the utility of social media technology and services are not mutually exclusive. They can be symbiotic and when so joined the resulting analysis can support greater understanding of the natural world and our place in the cycle of life. It is my hope that technology advancements – like social media – will bring individuals greater engagement with nature and help humankind shoulder the stewardship responsibilities required to ensure the natural world survives for future generations.
*From the poem At the Fish Houses by Elizabeth Bishop read by Eric Karpeles at the Geography of Hope Conference