Narrative Control and the Inept State: Seismic Anomalies, Technological Glitches, and the Failed Tsunami Alert of February 27, 2010.

Stephanie C. Kane (Criminal Justice) and Eden Medina (Informatics)
Indiana University

The global shipping industry moves neoliberal investment around the world, electronically tracking and transferring goods, currencies, and people. The port zones of all key coastal cities have themselves been containerized by private investments, which have effectively “rolled back” Port Authority functions to the entry gates. Despite their relative autonomy, ports were not impervious to the global financial crisis of 2008, which caused a slow-down in world production and consumption. Nor are they impervious to politically-inspired blockades. However, as any video footage of containers being thrown about like Tinker Toys clearly dramatizes, political economic threats to the viability of ocean-going trade are nothing compared to tsunami waves, which give a whole new meaning to the idea of “space time compression”. In Chile at least, a nation with over 6,435 kilometers of coastline and 52 ports, despite their dominance in all global shipping matters, private shipping companies play no significant role in the management of tsunami alerts. A stronghold of civil-military public authority, the tsunami alert system is relatively impervious to the struggles for and against neoliberalisms’s transformation of port city waterfronts.

At the same time, ethnographic and historical research in Valparaiso and Santiago show that authoritative decisions taken on 27/2 relied upon the basic technological, political, and cultural networks that sustain normal maritime city life. Thus, while decision-making itself takes place within a public stronghold, to a significant degree, the means of producing alerts, and disaster communication more generally–cell phone and Internet communication technologies–have been designed to serve the private interests that own them. In this work, we analyze the sources and implications of inter-organizational counter-points, fumbles, and collaborations in the moments between earthquake and tsunami to reveal how neoliberalisms have textured the protocols of order and incoherence.