A cosmic irony: in our technological, networked global society, the most immediate danger is migrating birds. The implacable avian or “bird” flu -- influenza virus A, subtype H5N1 -- has flapped its way from Asia to the Middle East, Europe, and most recently, Africa, where containment is virtually impossible. Next stop, the New World!
Because Nature is the provocateur, we're in deep trouble. People-made environmental threats, like pumping fluorocarbons into the air, belching billions of barrels of chemical waste into the rivers and oceans, or polluting the land with plastic, can be dealt with by changing our behavior. There is no way to curb sick birds in flight, other than to kill them.
There aren't enough hunters to carry out this grisly task, so in a short time, bird flu will be everywhere. Every bird, wild and domestic, will be suspect. To play it safe, millions of birds will be slaughtered; the process has already begun.
If bird flu makes a tran-species leap and begins to infect human beings, it will become a pandemic, a global illness afflicting every society, from which no one is safe; everyone is vulnerable. Whole societies shudder at the pandemic's impact. Our fragile global economy may take serious hits from the next pandemic that it may not survive.
Before a pandemic actually strikes, people may start acting differently when they think it's coming. Or not.
Some fortify themselves and their communities against the disease, undertake domestic public health initiatives (like those recommended by the World Health Organization), and give aid to already afflicted communities with the aim of curtailing the pandemic before it gains velocity.
Others run scared. Overcome by fear, they fold up emotionally: give up on the future, become increasingly insular and reclusive, and simply shut down, economically and socially.
The great majority of us do neither. We don't prepare and we don't despair. We acknowledge and move on. We do what we always have done. That's where most of us are at the moment, almost everywhere in the world. The popular experience of the bird flu is that it isn't yet a crisis; if and when it becomes one, we can deal with it. Life goes on, ooh-blah-dee....
This is the Penumbra Effect and it varies from culture to culture. We don't perceive the crisis per se: we perceive the social reaction. The Penumbra Effect is the result , in the face of a potential crisis, of interactions among sources of information and our perceptions, cognitions, and behavior. Synergetic, the Penumbra Effect can catalyze a successful response to a crisis; or it can transform a mild crisis into a major crisis, and a major crisis into a catastrophe.
How we experience a potential crisis, a condition that by definition we haven't experienced before (any of us, experts or laypersons), determines how we respond. This experience is designed through the cumulative interactions of speakers, writers, media professionals, politicians, health professionals, corporations, governments, NGOs, and the public. But no one is designing the interactions to produce positive, proactive results.
Our experience of the bird flu crisis is the ultimate in poorly designed experiences. The popular press sporadically highlights infestations in places seemingly out of sight and mind: rural Turkey, jungle Nigeria, the vast eastern spaces of China. It tells us just enough to make us think we know about the threat of pandemic, when of course we don't. (An exception is the BBC.) Politicians -- including President Bush in the U.S. -- assure us that everything's being taken care of, again providing partial information. (UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is not so sure -- and Annan's been correct more often than Bush for the last six years, since Bush became President.)
On the other side of perception, public health professionals tell us that while the situation may not be critical, it needs tending, now. (But their megaphones tend to be smaller.) It's a confusing melange of opinions.
The public health professionals are swimming upstream against powerful heuristics: the “availability” bias that discounts unimaginable future dangers and the “peak-end rule” that magnifies past successes in overcoming crises. No one wants to imagine ten, twenty, or thirty percent of the people they know as ghosts (least of all, him- or herself)! I've had that experience. When I heard the news from Nigeria, where bird flu most recently alighted, the details of my day receded and one of three persons I encountered became flimsy -- a kind of reverse Sixth Sense.
I can't find the resources online to build a Flu-Danger Awareness movement. Sure, information about the potential pandemic is available online; so is information about the Oscars and 40,000 great recipes. Perhaps there are chat rooms I haven't heard about, where proactive individuals are making plans to salvage our global society. I don't think so.
We're in an informational limbo: we know just enough to appreciate the collective dimension of our dilemma. But we're constrained from collectively preparing for the worst, because we're unable to pool our responses except through distilled channels like the news. Experience designers who are busy building better websites and shopping-mall exhibitions might consider how well received their work will be after pandemic sweeps across an unprepared world.
Failure to get the message right in 1918, when the last flu pandemic struck, resulted in millions of deaths in the United States. Maybe this time, experience designers can do better, helping us to understand and sensible react to our predicament. But who will make that happen?