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Working in a Winter Wonderland

November 29, 2010

It has been very cold.

Many parts of the UK have experienced heavy snowfalls – unusually early in the year, though far from unprecedented. As a result, some people have been stranded in mid-journey.

And that’s the news.

Only it isn’t, because these events seem to have received an awful amount of coverage – and muddled excitable coverage at that, if my own random sample is anything to go by. [And if it isn’t – then it seems a no more disproportionate treatment of the news, than the news’ treatment of the weather.]

Muddled? In the same report you get:

  1. Reporter standing by the side of the road reminding us what heavy snow condtions are like. [If you’re in it, you know what it’s like. If you’re not, it’s of interest, but you know what it was like last time you were in it. If you’ve never experienced UK snow – you probably wouldn’t be looking to the mainstream news media to educate you at the expense of the 90+% who have.]
  2. Hints that the authorities may have been ‘caught out again’ – though no empirical substantiation here, especially as most authorities seem to be ‘fighting the last war’ having stocked up on extra grit/salt and new machinery that they know would have been invaluable last year
  3. Statistical stories about how ‘it’s the earliest in the year that we have experienced temperatures this low’ (try thinking through what that means) – hard on the heels of stories about how 2010 to date has been ‘the warmest year, on average, since records began’.
  4. Realism about the forward horizon of weather forecasting leading to curiously menacing truisms such as ‘we can’t see an end to this’… which transforms ‘it will be like this until at least Thursday as far as we can tell’ into something like the announcement of the dawn of a new ice age.

Why?

I suppose one explanation is that this is reactive coverage – and that the quality of analysis in most of our newsrooms is now such that different stories – weather forecasting, public service policy, climate change, practical warnings and geographically targeted advice, novelty and oddity – cannot be separated out and treated in a variety of different ways in the time available.

But (and I wouldn’t be a grumpy, critical, moral-drawing blogger if I didn’t) I see two other forces at work:

  1. An ever-growing media environment of drama and fear. Never mind the fact that there are facts (this has affected some people in some places, to this degree, and is may persist for this long – which is not massively interesting) and never mind that there’s some proportionate advice to tease out (those of you living in X, Y and Z would do well to assume that… but those of you in A, B and C are probably wasting your time) why don’t we just find spectacular images, some miserable and/or disgruntled people, and create the impression that this is probably going to happen to you some time soon, could last for ages and will be just as horrible as we have taken pains to convey to you. Also – let’s use emotive language – ‘n’ schools haven’t ‘closed’ in Yorkshire, they have been ‘forced to close’. Assuming that all this isn’t just down to journalists being sloppy and a bit short on considered analytical firepower (which I rearely do BTW) the only other conclusion is that they know that this is what their audience wants and expects… that the British, in particular, want to see signs of some greater doom unfolding,… ergo
  2. The fulfillment (by collecting the most extreme evidence that can be gleaned, in isolation, from anywhere in the weather imagery of the last few days) of a desire to believe that something big is happening. For some this is comforting – it’s the sense that we shouldn’t worry about the minutiae of our own lives because some much greater wave is breaking over us – so let’s hunker down, eat, drink and be merry in the way that our ancestors took each new winter to be a possible ice-death of the world. For the rest it is just another source of fear which, whilst uncomfortable, demands to be fed… the child has to keep looking under the bed for the monster, because somehow not knowing is even worse. We Brits – we like to be taken out of ourselves by a bit of impending doom – in spite of ourselves – and the media seem all too ready to feed the habit, to turn up the volume after the adverts, and to show us the rest of the audience getting carried away with the whole thing. So it’s our own fault then?

One last thought. With every decade that passes we are becoming more insulated (literally and metaphorically) by more efficient heating systems, new materials in glazing, roofing and wall building. We travel around in warm cars with safety devices, heaters, climate control, entertainment systems. Public transport, though still subject to many horrors, is also benefitting from these improvements. Shopping centres, after a short dash from the car, invite us to walk from shop to shop without leaving the maintained climate – even to sit in ‘pavement cafes’ between them. Many people have places of work which enjoy similar physical climate. I also often find that those who are still the most affected by winter weather – delivery drivers, emergency services, farmers and builders – are actually the most stoic, once they’ve told their particular (actual, not future hypothetical) story.

So could it be that there are now generations for whom the prospect that their insulated automotive womb may grind to a halt, or that they may (even worse) have to get out of it and brave the cold in clothes which inductively assumed no such thing could ever happen, really does constitute a dire threat… worthy of that excitable news coverage. This is in contrast to the days (of course) of my youth – when you assumed that cars would break down, or get stuck, and when, to be fair, you probably travelled less far and less often as a result. I think I may even be starting to join this ‘nesh’ generation myself.

It makes me think of some of the worlds of Isaac Asimov – where ‘weather’ was something that happened above the roof of a spherical man-made habitat that covered an entire planet. Where ‘weather’ was something that a few hardy souls, the equivalnet of extreme sports fans, experienced in special visits to semi-protected structures on that roof, and where the great majority of humanity enjoyed climates which were customised and finely maintained, without ever having to brave the ‘outside’.

Be careful what you wish for.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 30, 2010 12:19 am

    The limit case may E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops, dating from all the way back in 1909, where only extreme rebels and weirdos ever go outside and where even any direct contact between individuals has become bizarre. Then the machine does indeed stop and things go horribly wrong…

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