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Collateral data and the future

Published: 22nd May 2021 12:05 am | Updated: 21st May 2021 11:42 pm

All of us are aware of the phrase and concept of ‘collateral damage’, damage not intended in an act of violence or warfare, but nevertheless accrues as an indirect result of those acts. But collateral damage is not the only consequence of such acts.

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Take one key instance. The Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombings were the results of a series of experiments in nuclear technology. These bombings were, in no uncertain terms, unfortunately successful and proved that Maniac Man can obliterate entire cities in seconds. But destruction was not the only result of the bombing. Starting with the photographs of the bombed cities published by the Manhattan Engineer District in 1945 in the form of a 102-page booklet, Photographs of the Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the bombings also produced a vast quantum of data for future use.

Incidental Data

This data, neither a direct nor intended effect of the action, is ‘collateral data’. Susan Lindee, the Professor of History and Sociology of Science at UPenn, argues:

“just as battles have produced “unintended” destroyed villages or dead civilians, so too they generate information that is not the direct purpose of the battle.”

She elaborates: “in the course of the twentieth century, battlefields increasingly came to be understood by scientists, engineers, physicians and even military and political leaders as open-air laboratories, and testing grounds for new technologies and new ideas — for tanks, psychological theories, healing therapies, shock treatments and so on…”

Lindee’s is a key insight in understanding how knowledge and information arrive unexpectedly, in the form of collateral data, from (even) sites of extreme anguish, suffering and violence.

A massive amount of data about radiation sickness emerged from the investigations into and treatment of the bomb victims in Hiroshima-Nagasaki. The film, Effect of Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 09/21/1945-10/1945, by the United States Air Force was an early documentation. This set of photographs showed ruins, but, since they were shot from the air, did not document the human cost. Yoshito Matsushige’s photographs are the only ones taken from the ground, and captures the radiated, ruined bodies (After the bombing, the American military confiscated all of the post-bombing newspaper photographs and/or newsreel footage but forgot the negatives: that is how Matsushige’s pictures survived.)

Later, specialised studies in the wake of the destruction, controlled by the science and politics of the winning nation, the USA, dominated the work on radiation sickness in Japan. Over the years, the initiative became a transnational one, in the form of the Radiation Effects Research Organisation: A Cooperative Japan-US Research Organisation. This RERF has compiled vast data about Fukushima, Chernobyl and other nuclear disasters, but it originates in the collateral data of Hiroshima-Nagasaki.

Henry Beecher’s work on soldiers, conducted in real time in Italy and in Africa during World War II became the foundation for published work on the effect of shock and pain on soldiers at the front. Also studying various kinds of injuries, Beecher’s publications on trauma became iconic starting points for trauma studies. The battlefield was his laboratory, and what came out of it as collateral data served generations of physicians, diagnosticians and psychiatrists.

What we Learn

It is salutary to think of what we learn from disasters, events of extreme violence and such. Over the past several decades, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) developed a series of ‘response’ measures to disaster, of various kinds, culminating in the 2015 Emergency Response Preparedness [ERP] Guidelines of 2015.

Its stated aim is to seek ‘to build national and local resilience, including preparedness capacity’. It assumes, further, that in several situations ‘the scale of the potential emergency requires the concerted action of a number of agencies/organizations’. Learning from each disaster, the IASC is a key figure in risk-disaster management and crisis handling.

Now no doubt nationalist ideologies will not only question the very existence of a humanitarian crisis, but also proclaim that the UN’s ERP is tantamount to a smear campaign and a conspiracy to destabilise, dishonour and disembowel the stable nation.

The denial of access to monitoring agencies, of collateral data emerging from any humanitarian crisis (the shutting off of Chernobyl and affected areas is the first such instance of the modern era, and we can count ongoing crises as continuing the trend), is an attempt to deny the creation of necessary knowledge. Collateral data when shared and developed mutually not only cements trust but also produces epistemic communities, such as the UN, whose work is beyond the national border. Doctors Without Borders, that much maligned group, is an instance of such an epistemic-activist community.

Collateral data

Averting Disaster

The denial of accurate studies and proper access to the injured or the suffering, or the analysis of existing policy – from nuclear power to vaccine distribution mechanisms – is, in effect, a denial of knowledge-making processes. A humanitarian crisis is also a failure of knowledge-and-resource preparedness.

All crises are proleptic: they anticipate another, future disaster. The very idea of ‘emergency preparedness’ emerges as a prolepsis, a knowing-in-advance, of an imminent crisis. The prolepsis directed at the future, comes out of the cauldron of an ongoing crisis.

This is precisely why the suppression of the exact numbers of the dead, the processes of dying, the etiologies of the disease, the therapeutic, palliative or ameliorative ‘treatments’ being offered is a violation of the foundational principles of crisis management: using the crisis to develop knowledge for the future, to avert such a crisis in the future.

Collateral data is a key component to a proleptic narrative and knowledge-making process. Even a crisis can be a source of not just humility (how we have gone wrong) but as a means of learning, for preparedness. A crisis now is a prefatory statement for and about the future as well, like dystopian and eco-apocalyptic fictions are fantasies of a particular kind of future.

So what collateral data and wisdom have we acquired for the future from the ongoing catastrophe?

(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)

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