Learning about information management is partly about observing how people react to information events, individually and collectively. One social exercise coming to roost this week is the first widespread test of a government disaster program called the Emergency Alert System, designed to let the president interrupt TV and radio programming quickly in the event of a national emergency.
Technology aside, I've come to think some social behavior is engrained genetically, tends to repeat itself, and EAS really set off my memory alarm to a few weeks ago when I was flat on the sofa working through a bout of the flu. In that condition, I was not annoyed to cross my umpteenth rerun of "Independence Day," the blockbuster action movie released in 1996.
In the movie, just as a massive invasion from outer space commenced, the White House went into action and the president was rushed to his helicopter for evacuation. Before he boarded and mere seconds before half the world would detonate, the president turned to a top aide and uttered, “Activate the Emergency Broadcast System.”
I chuckled though it hurt. Like me, EBS was a child of the 1950s, a system created to spread news of disaster (aka Soviet ICBMs) in which sirens would sound, alerting residents to tune their AM radios to an assigned frequency and await government instructions. The thing didn’t even work on FM radio or TV until years later, and it inspired jokes of barely forewarned immolation even in the day.
"Independence Day" is full of quaint characters and caricatures, but isn't a time capsule 15 years later. We still go to work in nearly every building destroyed in the movie. Our clothes look much the same. Air Force One and the military plane flown by Will Smith are the same models as front-line jet aircraft of today. The cell phones had pull out antennas but the cool ones folded in half.
It adds to why seeing EBS come back to life this week in EAS looks even more like a reflexive anachronism. This Wednesday, November 9, 2011 at 2 p.m. ET, FEMA, the FCC and NOAA will test the Emergency Alert System nationally for the first time ever. As a blog informs us, the test is to validate that the "national code" transmitted to broadcasters when the president wants to trigger the system (which no president has ever done), works.
Ten days before zero hour, my cable TV provider warned me that my service would be interrupted for three and a half minutes, the time required to activate the system nationally. Comcast carefully said everything would be back to normal quickly after that.
It had the same ring of futility as EBS, and more irony would follow.
For starters, in a country with more cell phones than people, (not to mention Twitter, Facebook and cable news), you'd have to be trapped in a Utah gorge with your arm pinned under a boulder to miss, by three and a half minutes, an event that would cause the president to push this button. You'd also wonder why a president couldn't get on TV pretty quickly if there was a need.
Three and a half minutes of lost connectivity by itself is enough to trigger a panic attack in some folks, which may explain why it was announced late last week that the test Wednesday will be shortened to 30 seconds. Statements are expected from the Feds to say they want to minimize disruption to the public. My guess is they want their overseers reelected, which a 210-second interruption on a Wednesday afternoon might derail.
But, as a result, the test won't be able to validate the system. It takes longer than 30 seconds to make the national code work with all the equipment installed, so there will be no sure way to know the code is working. Instead, officials will try to sample how effectively the message spreads.
I wouldn't minimize anyone's preparation for a disaster, but elements of this story are odd enough to have set off conspiracy theories about what the government is "really" up to. FEMA tells us EAS is the system of last resort when every communication channel except broadcast television fails. Who knew the bad guys couldn't disable TV and satellite radio as easily as the Internet or phones with sabotage or a nuclear pulse?
I'm not buying into a conspiracy but I do have a couple of alternate suggestions. We could connect the EAS to every pop-up Web ad, or, better yet, to every Justin Bieber tweet. And since Netflix (perhaps until lately) was accounting for 30 percent of all domestic peak Internet traffic -- more than all Web surfing -- we could nationalize the company as our bandwidth equivalent of the U.S. Oil Reserve.
Speaking of movies, some people trapped in a gorge without a connection might use that knife to end the ennui long before they died of thirst. Then again, I saw today that AOL still has more than 3.5 million dialup Internet customers (and we know how annoying and noisy that is).
A relative was telling me today she's visiting another friend in Baja, California next week who owns a little house with some plumbing and a limited supply of solar power. Once she's there, if she wants to use a phone, she'll have to walk into town with plenty of change in her pocket.
Sounds like one of those Corona commercials, a couple of chairs on the beach facing the sand and sea, and that's the final irony.
In the event the president ever does find a reason to push that button, off the grid might be the best place to be of all.