Watching television coverage of the 10th anniversary of 9/11, it was somewhat shocking to realize how much technology has advanced in 10 short years, and how that technology has changed our interaction with the world.
In short, if we were to experience a national tragedy like that today— and we will, at some point, whether man-made or natural—smartphones and social media have changed everything.
Our experience will be much more raw, visceral, real-time, confusing, more emotional than what we experienced 10 years ago. It will be a cacophony of raised voices, with our brains trying to sort out the ridiculous from the possibly true.
It was bad enough watching TV newscasts of the World Trade Center towers in New York collapse into clouds of choking dust. How about real-time streaming video from inside the buildings, watching dozens of people in an office trapped by flames and smoke, some making the decision to break a window and jump? The smartphone you hold in your hand is capable of delivering that, using a free Ustream account.
Or how about instead of a farewell email or phone call, as many of the twin towers victims sent, it was a farewell Skype or Apple FaceTime video call?
In 2001, only half the nation was on the Internet, and much of that was through the molasses of a dialup connection. Now some 80 percent are connected, and most of that is through broadband connections. Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn didn't exist. Cell phones didn't have cameras—now, the majority of adults walking around are carrying a camera with them.
Now, as likely as not, you would first find out about the 9/11 events through Twitter or Facebook. You might still turn on the (now-high-definition) TV, but you would check social media at the same time, as would the news broadcasters you watched.
You would have access to much more raw, first-person, gut-wrenching information—photos, YouTube videos, tweets, Facebook status updates—with much of that difficult to interpret, seemingly conflicting, some of it false or at odds with what newscasters reported.
When breaking news occurs, much of the first information is wrong.
Watching a replay of NBC's coverage for 9/11, newscasters initially reported that a bomb had exploded at the Pentagon, not an airliner crash; that a car bomb had exploded at the State Department; that there was a bomb reported at a high school near the World Trade Center; that after all four jetliners had crashed, there were “still several flights unaccounted for;” and that the president, who had been in Florida that morning, was on his way back to Washington.
None of that information turned out to be true.
Now, firsthand social-media accounts might more quickly correct bad information, but they also could increase the flow of bad information through hoaxes and amateur reporting that makes wrong assumptions. We, as news consumers, would have to make judgments ourselves as to what was believable.
That isn't always so easy.
After the power outage that hit San Diego County and surrounding areas last week, one person I know criticized the coverage by radio station KOGO-AM, pointing to its broadcast of a report that two power plants in the desert had exploded as an example, implying that the report was farfetched.
I replied that what I had heard broadcast on KNX-AM in Los Angeles was more farfetched: that an Arizona utility had tweeted that the cause of an outage affecting 7 million people and causing $100 million in economic damage was a single utility worker in Yuma who had thrown some wrong switches. At this point it appears that is true, however.
The outage brings up one final observation about how things have changed. Phone companies used to be viewed as utilities, and land-line phone service was subject to regulation ensuring reliability during emergencies.
Wireless carriers don't seem to be viewed the same way. The cell service near my home worked for a short time when the outage began but then failed completely. Apparently it had very limited battery backup power.
More and more people rely on mobile phones as their only phone connection. As such, more should be done to “harden” wireless infrastructure so that service remains available during emergencies.