I am reminded by the news coverage this week about that terrible morning of 9/11/01. I had been in NYC both in the WTC and 60 Hudson with my boss on the Friday before the attack. He was a real Texas country boy and had never been to NYC so we walked over to the towers and he stood against them and looked straight up the side. If you’ve ever done that you know how vertiginous that was to do. I remember clearly his remark – “I wonder what folks will think when they do this in 1,000 years? It will probably be no big deal to them.” Two days later they were no more.
What I was mostly struck by in conversations I’ve had with colleagues recently is how much things have changed. For one, his first awareness of the tragedy was the radio – mine was a TV report about 30 minutes after the first crash. Yet ten years later, the death of Bin Laden was spread around the world in minutes by email, SMS and tweet – even at a baseball game. A Navy buddy of mine sent me an SMS that simply said “team 6 finally got him” and, having flown the SEALS around a bit, I knew instantly what he meant. Do you think that the immediacy of our ability to communicate anything helps or hurts our ability to absorb its significance?
What I’m sometimes afraid to consider is how much of this is a part of my own creation. Does the availability of all these media encourage marginal and full blown sociopaths to try to get their “15 minutes” in any way they can? Does it act as an enabler of sorts that gives us an instant and prurient window into what is private and shameful? Or does the intrinsic goodness of sunlight trump the risk of perversion of the mechanism? In fact, is the mechanism simply and always neutral and amoral and therefore never a consideration? I am reminded of Robert Oppenheimer who after he watched the Trinity test remarked in shame and horror; “I am Shiva, the destroyer of worlds.” What obligation, if any, does all of this place on us as technologists and human beings?
Do you wonder whether being inundated by literally tens of thousands of press reports of the compound raid with incredible details is better than the simple and stark image of the WTC burning against a blue sky with a single NBC newscaster mute from an inability to even form words? Which transmitted the reality of the event better? I’m not sure and I worry sometimes about our ability to get to the heart of what really matters in the clutter of data that our world seems to have become. Maybe we shouldn’t always focus on bigger, faster; better delivery and pay attention to helping folks make sense of what is going on. Ironically, there is probably no more “information” in the world today than there was fifty or even a hundred and fifty years ago. We simply are now standing in the rain all of the time – I for one would sometimes like a little shelter.