Beautiful Catastrophe

There is something quite unnerving about revisiting statistics for an event which is long in the past. You could look at it as a way of validating the pedestal a particular event holds in time, which may be important. Or you could see it as a way of glorifying something truly horrific, and is likely never to happen again at least not in many lifetimes to come. It is with these perspectives that I clicked on The Fallen of World War II, a digital montage visualising the war casualties between 1939 and 1945.

…more at

First up I should say that this is a slick and impressive display of the true cost to generations after the war ended. For major countries it is hard not to see how this war effected them. Often the dialogue surrounds the victors, and the price they paid for so called freedom (because, you know, the US and Britain were invaded and ruled for a brief period. Oh wait). Perhaps with the use of this video you can get a strong indication of how other countries really suffered. Indeed a quick scroll through the comments on Vimeo will show the level of appreciation of the maker’s visualisation.

Yet, I can’t really applaud this interpretation beyond the actual aesthetic, as there are far too many concerns raised here. This is especially important as this year sees the passing of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, and we will be reassessing this past in the coming months.

It is well worth noting, and I do have The Fallen of World War II to thank for this important point, that to have fought in the war, veterans now would be at least in their late eighties, many would be in their early nineties. It is highly unlikely that there are many remaining, regardless of what country they fought for, and soon there will be none remaining. It is with this in mind that we need to take more care about how we interpret acts in history.

It’s very easy to do a statistical analysis of a historical event. With World War 2 it’s is particularly convenient as primarily we are discussing the actions of armies, together with their large bureaucratic arms that detail the specifics of each and every recruit, from all those who survived to all those who died. Knowing all this information, like the average age of new recruits, the amount of people who signed up from a particular town or the amount of Sagittarians that died on a Tuesday in 1942 serves a function which distances us from the ultimate tragedy of the Second World War.

The names of some of the people who lost their lives during World War II (Image courtesy

I’m kind of a geek when it comes to reading over figures and statistics in history. I’m interested in populations, costs, quantities, and pretty much any other detail which can be extracted. But statistics, whether disputed or not, are merely numbers. To turn the millions of people who died into levels on fancy a bar chart does not settle easily with me.

There is little difference in this elaborate display of colours and stickmen to a chart with the countries listed in alphabetical order and the number of casualties detailed beside them. Creating a graph that shows how many people who died rising epically into some digital stratosphere still holds the same level of shock as when the number 20,000,000 is printed. Short of celebrating one’s own ability to create a quite beautiful display, it doesn’t make the lives that actually make up these statistics any less or more valuable.

British troops arrive on Normandy beaches signifying the beginning of the Battle of Normandy which saw over 400,000 soldiers killed.

What I struggle to accept though, looking at the larger picture, is that for all these people who did die, how do we celebrate their story? Does Ireland, a country that suffered only slightly in the war, deserve to be any less remorseful about the events which took place in Europe and Asia? How does a country like Russia or China, two countries that lost a catastrophic number of people, actually account for these lives? These are places we can find it difficult to imagine life in during those times, but grief like love is a universal factor, we all suffer from it to a comparable level. To me it seems that these people’s histories, and the sheer size of their tragedy, have been forced into statistics before we could ever understand them truly.

We are fortunate that the rich television history of the twentieth century has documented many of the ways in which life was lived both on the battle fields and at home. Recently we have been extra lucky to see more real-to-life interpretations, or as real-to-life as we are willing to be trusted with. Story telling brings us closer to the sadness wrought by the sudden death of a comrade, or the brutality of a shrapnel injury.

It is a story that seems to have been ignored. The countries which suffered the greatest loss of life decided to forget what happened. Can you blame them? Even a country like Poland rarely discusses this. Indeed it is not a surprise that the war is not a topic of conversation on every German’s lips, but I can be sure that those people are more aware than anyone of the history their nation created. I wish the same could be said for Japan.

As for the gaping hole in the generations of Russian and Chinese people who had to have been slaughtered to have perished in the quantities they did, what narrative or remembrance can we learn to truly understand a greater significance of World War II? I would hope we can create one which is not dominated by fancy graphics and data, but by realities wrought in the death and destruction of individuals whose fate was decided by men in offices in search of some class of glory.




P.S. Describing every German soldier who fought and died in the war as a Nazi is an unfair accusation. You wouldn’t say that all the Russians were communists, and all the Americans patriots, or whatever.


Relearning to Read in 2014

So many things change, so much remains the same. New media has presented so many new challenges in all aspects of our lives but perhaps where we are effected most is how we digest written text. It is a constantly changing environment and due to the speed of change a status quo has yet to be established. The way we read has changed at such a remarkable pace in the past decade that there is nothing to say that this process is complete. A full revolution has yet to be completed and within the fulcrum of this change the very way we live our lives is being effected.

I was reading a medium post on the demise of print news journalism and the gradual decline of newspapers as news medium of choice this morning. It was expressed throughout the post that while the future for journalism is drastic, this future is not in fact news of itself, and it has in fact been obvious for so many who cared to even think about it for a moment.

A simple enough survey among anyone will reveal that few if any at all have in fact held and read a newspaper in the past few days, let alone bought one. Then an equally simple survey along the lines of ‘but have your read the news today?’ will reveal that the majority of the same people have in fact read some news articles, and are quite familiar with the main news headlines.

I certainly fall into this category. I don’t buy a newspaper, and I might at most pick up today’s newspaper if I’m in my parent’s house. I get an email every morning from the Irish Times, The Guardian, and the New York Times, all of which I usually open and browse the headlines (the NYT less so as a reaction to what was some pretty atrocious efforts of covering the murder of children in Gaza). I may click a link, but more often than not I don’t. Later on the bus to work I’ll scan through twitter for other news, and here I’ll click some links – some from these papers, and some links from other magazines or papers.

Note that I’m still calling them papers. You can see a lot of people on the same bus as me reading from the same sort of papers. And by papers I mean the medium they source the information from, not the publisher. There is very little paper on modern buses in 2014 as even our tickets are plastic.

We have I suppose come to a point where we are seeing the end of something which for so long was commonplace. This isn’t the first time that this has happened. Of course news media has now expanded into a 24 hour information dispensing factory composed of written text, images, and video encompassing reportage, opinion, and even advertisements selected for you based on the the material you are reading at the time. It is more sophisticated than ever before, but the form that brought it to the end is slowly dying.

If it is saved it will be interesting to see how this happens. It would have to be a fairly awesome machine that can outstrip the smartphone for its ability to bolster the necessity for 24 hour media immersion. We will always say that we don’t need something better, but someone is currently having ideas how to make this better. I can’t imagine what it will be, nor can I imagine when I will actually buy this device myself.

The reliance on smart devices in the media comes up against recent research which purports  that reading on a screen is less immersible than reading on paper. Where this information will do most damage will be in the ebook market, as well as offering much sought after vindication for supporters of books, who have long lauded the joy of touch on the rough paper of the individual page as an important reason for continuing their love affair with books, and shunning modernity in the shape of ebooks.

It is especially significant as this research will hopefully encourage a return to ye olde textbook for school kids, with the removal or reduction of ipads from the classroom. It’s not that I’m against technology in the classroom, in fact I endorse it fully, however replacing digital devices for actual books deserves a few complaints from me.

I’ll complain first about the necessity of only sourcing ipads when any other tablet should be sufficient, and indeed more cost effective. The connection of ipads and education will leave a lasting effect and I think that if we are encouraging kids to use technology in the classroom we should encourage them to be more discerning customers who know how to make informed decisions. I like ipads, in fact I love mine, but I certainly would never encourage someone to buy one over another product. Too each their own I say. Encouraging them in classrooms irks me. If we are to encourage any particular tech it should be, in my opinion, open source. But I shall digress for now.

Another thing I think is important about books in classrooms is that I think they encourage a little more responsibility. Other than dropping and smashing the screen of your device, you can kind of get away with anything. With books you kind of have to make sure not to tear them, spill things on them, and if you’re like me if you’re going to draw pictures and chew the corners you have the true physical and emotional response when your mother finds the state of them when she tries to sell them on second hand the year after you done with them.

Of course what’s most important about books is that you have a four dimensional experience with them. You have to touch the pages, you have to write notes in them (only lightly and in pencil of course), they smell, and you are as much engaged in the content as you are with the environment you are in at that time. You remember more because you experience more through your senses. Screens and devices attempt to replicate this, but they come a cheap second in the long run.

So what does this mean for news media? Well probably not a lot I’d wager. We still want news now, and no other medium other than smart technology and the internet can provide this. Yet. And when this medium arrives, it will be quicker and it will be more invasive in the way that we carry it around with us everywhere, whether it is social media or not.

Print however will not die, it will merely evolve. Can you recall the last time you read a 2000 word article on the bus or train in the morning? In fact I’m sure most readers are like me; a quick scroll to the bottom, check the length, then a scroll to the top and then decide somewhere in between as you scan a paragraph or two whether or not you’ll be bothered reading it. Do you do the same when it’s on paper?

Gone will be the short snappy articles often found in print. In will be a higher quality product, with longer and more in dept analysis focusing on long form journalism, quality photography and images, and a variety of news and analysis which stops us and takes us to another location, thought pattern, and allows us more than a simple report of events.You can already find these parts buried deep inside the features sections of most newspapers, but if there were more of them? Magazines have been doing this all the time, but perhaps we need even of this. It may not have to be daily, but it does need to be present.

As the ticker tape of news flickers by with crisis and disaster and scandal tumbling us into non-existence, this is the kind of material which lures us back. It forces us to stop, sit down, and to take a moment to actually read as we ignore the barrage of information tinkling in our pockets negotiating for our attention.

Perhaps now that we know that we cannot digest digital information as cohesively as we can words on print in time we will witness a rebirth of the printed word. The challenge I believe will be how will we change our lifestyles to adapt to this change, not how will the medium adapt to us.

It’s a nice thought.