It began with a phone call.
“Are you aware what’s been going on?”
I had been catching up on last week’s episodes of The Daily Show, so the answer was “no.”
I promptly typed “Boston.com” into my laptop’s address bar, and when the Boston Globe website failed to load, I compensated by opening Twitter in one tab, The New York Times in a second, Facebook in a third and the livestream of Brian Williams’ NBC News broadcast in a fourth.
Within five minutes, I knew as much about what happened on Boylston Street as anyone else in America.
I knew which of my fellow Bostonians were safe and sound. I knew the basic timeline of the madness downtown, with accompanying video and images marking every moment. I knew the number to call if I wanted to give blood, and I knew which streets were cordoned off and which subway lines had suspended service.
This was all to be expected—an illustration of the state of mass communication in the United States in 2013. Since technology only marches forward, it was only natural that all available means of getting the word out would be employed, and as robustly as possible.
We never stop gushing about how much our technology has improved in so little time, and the reason is that it never stops being true.
Recall: Twitter did not exist on September 11, 2001. Neither did Facebook. There were certainly cell phones, but neither I nor most of my friends owned one. We had the Internet, but in a horribly primitive iteration we would not recognize today.
In the days and weeks following 9/11, I would return home from school every day and ask my parents if anything interesting happened in the world while I was in class. For the six hours between home room and the final bell, we kids had no way of tracking the news on our own. On 9/11 itself, I didn’t know the Twin Towers had collapsed until I heard it on the school bus’s radio, some three or four hours after the fact.
We have had this conversation before, about the influence of social media on actual world events and in the ways we react to them.
We agreed, for instance, that the primary reason the popular uprising in Iran in June 2009 lasted as long as it did was because of Twitter. As Iran’s iron-fisted government attempted to shut down all forms of communication and crush its people’s will to resist, the people found they could tweet the latest developments to the rest of the world without being censored. Consequently, a real movement took root.
In the story of the world’s continuing technological advancements, the central question seems to be which aspects of mass communication and social networking are truly revolutionary, and which are merely evolutionary. That is, to what extent resources such as Twitter are simply streamlined versions of stuff we already had, or are entirely new entities that really are changing the world around us.
The answer, as always, is that they are both.
One cannot help but wonder how past trauma might have been altered with present-day tools—a rather depressing thought experiment, tempered ever-so-slightly by the reminder of our natural yearning for self-improvement. Yes, the current ubiquity of smart phones would’ve been nice a decade ago, but hey, at least we have them now. Small consolation is better than no consolation at all.
Another memory from 9/11: The walls of photos of missing loved ones in Lower Manhattan, with phone numbers and other contact information for anyone with any information to use.
The same system emerged Monday in Boston, except it was electronic: Everyone verifying his or her own status on Facebook and, more importantly, the swift implementation by Google of a “person finder”—a central database both to find and provide information about a particular person’s whereabouts in the bombing’s immediate aftermath.
It is encouraging to imagine, in whatever horrific incident we will inevitably face a decade from now, how much our means of communication will have further evolved from their capabilities today.
With privacy steadily becoming a thing of the past, is it not a foregone conclusion, for example, that we will all soon be equipped with some sort of personal tracking device? With Google’s forthcoming mad invention known as “Google Glass” introducing the concept of a computer worn directly on one’s face, what cause have we to despair about the continued promise of the human mind to produce good in the face of the occasional evil?