Imagining Apocalypse in the Information Age

Those who live in natural disaster-prone regions are familiar with the buzzing, dissonant tone that characterizes an Emergency Alert System (EAS) notification. These systems were developed in the uncertain days of the Cold War when the threat of a nuclear attack weighed heavily on the world’s psyche. The first American  nationwide emergency alert system, known as CONELRAD, was developed in 1951. Around the mid-20th century, news channels recorded messages to be read in the event of a nuclear strike. In fact, the BBC’s Wartime Broadcast, “Four-Minute Warning,” recorded to be broadcast in the event of a nuclear attack on the United Kingdom, is now publicly available (and was even sampled in a Radiohead song). Many  emergency broadcast announcements have been accidentally broadcast over the years.

State and municipal authorities have used EAS extensively to communicate with people about natural disasters since the late 20th century. However, authorities at the national level have never used the technology, not even during the catastrophic events of September 11.

In fact, only a few years after the inception of the EAS system in 1998, it became evident that 24-hour mass media, the internet, and mobile technology had superseded much of EAS’s functions, as seen on September 11, when near-instant and constant media coverage of unfolding events largely fulfilled the role EAS would have played during a large-scale attack. But EAS as a harbinger and log of catastrophe remains a part of popular imagination.

“Indeed, popular culture has long fixated on realistic disaster and apocalypse scenarios.”

Indeed, popular culture has long fixated on realistic disaster and apocalypse scenarios.Orson Welles’ 1938 broadcast of the novel War of the Worlds, framed as a series of simulated news bulletins, famously caused panic and drew official communication bodies’ ire due to its alleged realism. Since then, simulated EAS notifications have featured in a variety of films, TV shows, and video games. Echoing the concerns of officials 70 years before, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has fined television channels for misuse of the iconic tones; in 2014, ESPN, Viacom, and NBC were fined for broadcasting a trailer for the 2013 action film Olympus Has Fallen, which used the tones as part of the advertisement.

The threat of sanction from the US government has not deterred some. On YouTube, a small but active community of EAS enthusiasts use sound editing, archival audio and visual footage, and a little imagination to weave apocalyptic tales of everything from tornadoes to nuclear strikes. Some of the EAS simulations are used as pranks to frighten gullible parents or friends; others are simply exercises in creativity and speculative fiction. Some creators also fulfill simulation requests from viewers and share video production techniques with commenters. Ironically, the new media that supplanted EAS as a source of information during the September 11 crisis  now celebrates and sustains it.

This community of EAS enthusiasts on YouTube, both creators and listeners, highly prize the authenticity that terrified Orson Welles’ radio listeners back in 1938. For instance, in a 15-minute-long series of EAS bulletins about an escalating hostage situation in Richmond, Virginia, commenters debated at which point the events depicted would have triggered use of the Emergency Alert System, and which jurisdiction (municipal, state, or federal) would oversee the system’s deployment. Other commenters on simulation videos cracked dark jokes about their proximity to the danger described in the video, or whether they approved of a given  city’s being destroyed by fire, water, sword, or beast.

These videos are often effective exercises in suspense and horror. You cannot see the unfolding disaster or its effects. The computerized announcers betray no emotion or reaction to the information they relay. The cold, clinical descriptions of catastrophe and how to endure it let viewers’ minds fill in the gritty, gory details. The use of these sounds and protocols with which we are familiar from any number of tornadoes and hurricanes makes the horror of these scenarios all the more visceral. It brings the unimaginable – a large-scale terrorist attack, a nuclear strike, an asteroid headed toward the Gulf of Mexico – within the realm of possibility.   

These EAS simulations, with their commitment to verisimilitude even when portraying extreme or humorous situations, may also allow viewers and creators to think about how a government and populace would realistically cope with a large-scale disaster. How would society survive the blows of a nuclear holocaust or the eruption of Yellowstone?  What steps would civilians be instructed to take?

“Japan’s system demonstrates the real-world efficacy of emergency alert systems, if deployed swiftly and across multiple forms of media.”

Indeed, recent natural and industrial disasters, such as the 2011 Tohoku earthquake in northern Japan, illustrate the importance of crisis preparedness and societal resilience. Japan’s national emergency alert system, which is disseminated via television, phone, and radio, was credited with saving countless lives during the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami that struck the city of Sendai and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. This early warning system, which was deployed with only seconds to spare in 2011, can instruct civilians to stop potentially hazardous activities and seek shelter. Japan’s system demonstrates the real-world efficacy of emergency alert systems, if deployed swiftly and across multiple forms of media.

These videos  may be created to rattle a mother’s nerves or play on popular fascination with zombies and post-apocalyptic dystopias, but they also spur conversation about how institutions and individuals can cope with a crisis. In an age when information travels thousands of miles instantaneously, urbanization amplifies and multiplies the human cost of catastrophe, and global terrorism and climate change loom as ever-present threats, imagining the apocalypse may not be speculation, but rehearsal.

Image: Four Horsemen of Apocalypse, by Viktor Vasnetsov. Painted in 1887. (Wikimedia Commons)


Jocelyn Spencer is a graduate of Wesleyan University and University College London, Institute of Education. She specializes academically in Chinese history and politics and in language education policy. While studying for her MA in London, she was a project leader and intern for the think tank Project for the Study of the 21st Century, for which she continues to volunteer in the United States. She currently works for a private equity firm in New York City.

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