Ways of Seeing Earthquakes (Or, Is Emergence More “Intelligent” Than Technology?)

Arnold Genthe, 1906 San Francisco Earthquake (via Online Archive of California)

Second Response to Sundial Poll, Emergence; First Response to Forman

In a previous post, I referenced a RadioLab episode that indicated that the intelligence of emergence shows itself in various contests, such as one in which a group of people estimate how many pieces of candy are in a given jar.  Because many have found that the average estimate is commonly more accurate than the guess of any individual, I experimented with the estimates and results from our sundial poll to a very questionable end.  One number turned out to be very accurate, but all of the others were not.

Having as a result a relative distrust of either the episode’s reporting or my calculations, I was surprised to be confronted in our Structures class with another case of the intelligence of emergence, one which not only speaks to the intelligence in numbers but also – potentially – the ability of emergence to hint at things which we cannot yet see.

What was raised in Structures that was so indicative of emergence is this: before we had the technological means to detect the epicenter and extent of an earthquake, we, collectively, were able to identify in roughly quantitative terms its range of disturbance through newspaper reports.  As Prof. Kirk Martini indicated, a qualitative means of assessing the strength of an earthquake has been developed and used in the United States, known as the Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale.  This scale, ranging from 1 to 12, provides various descriptions of how an earthquake has effected a given location (i.e., 1 = “Not felt”; 3 = “Felt indoors . . . Hanging objects swing”; 8 = “Steering of motor cars affected”; 9 = “General panic . . . Serious damage to reservoirs”; etc.).  However vague these descriptions may be, when this scale, commonly in use today, was applied to newspaper reports around the country nearly 100 years before the scale was developed and well before modern technology was available to measure and track earthquake intensity, an accurate portrayal of an earthquake was nevertheless available.

Bolt, 1811 New Madrid Earthquake Diagram

As evident in the image above, Bruce Bolt was able to detect from various newspaper reports a collective, quantitative assessment of the center and range of influence of the New Madrid earthquake of 1811.  Although the dependency of any individual report is relative and questionable, the collective information gathered demonstrates a clear trend, suggesting that these reports were able to detect the earthquake accurately. (Newspaper reports from the western United States are not included simply because of the relative lack of established cities and newspapers in that region at that time – less than a decade following the Louisiana Purchase.)

What such a discovery indicates, I think, is a general challenge to technology.  Throughout history, we have developed numerous means by which we are able to see differently: the telescope provided the means to see Jupiter’s moons, and the microscope the world too small for our eyes to discern.  Or, following Richard T. T. Forman and others in Landscape Ecology Principles, airplanes and the widespread availability of aerial photographs coincided with the development of the term “landscape ecology.”  This seems to suggest that by developing technology, whether it is the telescope, microscope, or airplane, we are able to understand the world through a new perspective.  Technology precedes perspective in these cases.

While that last statement is untrue and unnecessary in many cases – as many things besides technology can cause changes of perspective or paradigm shifts – it does suggest that technology still plays an essential role in helping to establish certain new perspectives.  However, the research conducted on the New Madrid earthquake would suggest that in the cases in which technology aids in our understanding of the world, there may have already been a means by which that understanding of the world could be gained – without the technology that now “provides” that perspective.  Understanding emergence and where it might show itself, then, may be a means by which we can gain certain new perspectives without the now undeveloped technologies that may eventually enable those perspectives in the future.  The answers to some questions, in other words, may already be available if we only know where to look.

How, then, do we gain potential new perspectives or understandings of the world through emergence?  Quite possibly, and ironically enough following the previous paragraph, through technology.

USGS and Twitter Mapping of Earthquake (via seismosoc.org)

If intelligence through emergence demonstrates itself through the amassing of information from many sources, technology now provides a means by which we can collect and analyze great quantities of data in minimal timeframes.  Although I have no claims here to how amassing data from multiple sources might resolve issues at the forefront of science (i.e., the theory of everything), I can return to the issue of earthquakes.  As evident in the image above, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) continues to use the Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale to help locate the center and region of influence of an earthquake.  The Community Internet Intensity Map (CIIM) allows people throughout the country to report on the intensity of an earthquake at their locale, which is conglomerated with other reports into a map that effectively shows the center and range of influence (top, left).  Although each report may be slightly incorrect according to the Mercalli scale, the collective information reveals a general, dependable trend.

To this end, the USGS is now investigating the use of Twitter as a potential replacement for the CIIM system.  The remaining maps from the image above demonstrate, based on research conducted by Paul Earle and others, that Twitter can be an effective means of displaying realtime information about an earthquake and its relative intensity.  Technology, it appears here, makes possible the amassing and analysis of collective, emergent knowledge.  With such developments in the gathering and sharing of information, what else might we be able to understand holistically from what we already independently know in fragments?

For more information on Twitter-informed earthquake analysis, click here.

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