How often can we expect mega events like the Bin Laden assassination or the Tohoku quake/tsunami?  About every seven weeks, give or take.

In the early 1960s when the television age was just dawning and the Internet was still only a twinkle in the eye of its founders, Marshall McLuhan warned that electronic media were turning human societies into one big “global village,” communally stricken by joys and terrors that once would have remained local and less consequential.

He didn’t see the global village as a good thing; terms such as “village” and “terrors” reflected his suspicion that electronic media were regressing us into a more primitive, excitable, unreflective state.  I think he was basically right, and I can’t help but remember McLuhan’s warning whenever I check the papers on the web and get a sudden jolt from learning about an unexpected “big news” event, the killing of Bin Laden being the most recent example.

It’s a jolt somewhat like the ones delivered by recreational drugs, and so I’ve often wondered if we are in a sense collectively addicted to these events.  I’m not sure how one could go about determining that.  What would our withdrawal symptoms be?  If the doldrums after one of these big events extended for too long, would we somehow create a new big event to fill the void?

One thing we can measure, at least, is the frequency of these “big events.”

Here I make a first, very rough pass at doing that, with a list of such events over the past few years.  There is a certain arbitrariness here, of course, because the interval between “big events” depends on the precise definition of the term.  And I don’t have the time or resources to provide a strictly quantitative definition, e.g., more than x number of articles mentioning the event, in y key newspapers and TV networks, over z number of consecutive days.  Also, some of these events, like the Deepwater Horizon disaster and the recent quake-related catastrophes in Japan, occur over weeks or even months.  (I have left out regularly scheduled events such as elections, as well as the deaths of celebrities in old age, but perhaps should have included unexpected/accidental deaths, such as Michael Jackson’s in June 2009.)  Hopefully, though, my quick analysis will inspire someone to do a more rigorous one.  My suspicion is that these really big events occur with a fairly tight range of intervals, so that they are not completely unpredictable; in other words, nearly all intervals will be less than six months.  Presumably they reflect the outcomes of a vast set of broadly determinate, in some cases quasi-periodic systems (e.g., tectonic systems and the earthquakes they generate) on our planet and within its human societies.

date event interval (days)
1-May-11 Killing of Bin Laden 2
29-Apr-11 UK royal wedding 41
19-Mar-11 Western powers intervene in Libya 8
11-Mar-11 Japan earthquake, tsunami 42
28-Jan-11 “Friday of anger” in Cairo 14
14-Jan-11 Tunisian president flees 47
28-Nov-10 wikileaks diplomatic cables released 46
13-Oct-10 Chilean miners rescued 176
20-Apr-10 Deepwater Horizon explosion 6
14-Apr-10 Eyjafjallajökull eruption 1
13-Apr-10 Chinese earthquake 45
27-Feb-10 Chile earthquake, tsunami 46
12-Jan-10 Haiti earthquake 72
1-Nov-09 H1N1 influenza epidemic in US 134
20-Jun-09 Iran protests 26
25-May-09 North Korean nuclear test 80
6-Mar-09 S&P 500 bottoms 100
26-Nov-08 Mumbai terrorist attacks 51
6-Oct-08 week of panicked market selling begins 21
15-Sep-08 Lehman bankruptcy filing 39
7-Aug-08 Russia invades Georgia 87
12-May-08 Chinese earthquake 9
3-May-08 Burmese cyclone (133K dead)
average interval (days) 49.7
median interval 43.5
standard deviation 43.3
*expected* date of next major event 19-Jun-11