I was having dinner with my family last night, enjoying a quiet moment, when the TV that was left on in the next room hissed with static. You know that feeling, wondering if you have picked up on a weak signal to a catastrophe. Knowing that at anytime peace could be disturbed with senseless horror. And we have been sensitized that now is the greatest time of risk.
Some people obsess about suitcase bombs, terrorism and viral disease. There seems to be a more common belief, perhaps furthered by the current Administration, that the risk of catastrophe is greater than ever. But if you look at catastrophe being damage done through technology, accidental or with purpose, I'm not sure this is true.
The Cold War made us fear how wide-spread the impact of a single incident could be. Of course, such technology was only in the hands of a few governments. Now we have super-empowered individuals and social networks. Theoretically the odds of incidents, their frequency and scale, have increased. Regardless, society has evolved over time as well as technologies of saftey.
In the early days of the industrial revolution, I'd suggest that you had incidents of greater frequency but smaller scale. Most of them accidental, steam engines exploding and mines collapsing, and at a time when medical and safety technology and practices were less developed.
The media has changed both the measurement, distance of awareness, memory and amplification of catastrophes as stories. We fear things that don't threaten us directly, have our fears framed by others and it is fear itself that is the story.
I just want to offer up a small theory that I don't have time to test. The net impact of technological catastrophes is a relative constant from the industrial to information eras, but fear in the information era compounds.
UPDATE: Thanks for letting me share this half-baked theory. Upon reflection, technological catastrophe compounds with second order effects, like global warming. More baking to come.