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The disaster online

The disaster online

Andrew Brown for CT cyberpage 18 September 2001

The atrocity at the World Trade Centre threw into very sharp relief the strengths and weaknesses of the Internet. The most obvious cause of both is that itís not television nor radio. If you wanted to see what had happened, there was no possible substitute for television. If you wanted to keep up with breaking news, radio was easier to get. Almost all the main news sites on the web collapsed under the load within an hour of the first crash. But outside those particular sites, the rest of the Internet functioned pretty well. I donít have a television or a radio in my office, so I spent most of the Tuesday afternoon listening to the BBC World Service on a live internet feed; and I could, when I wanted to, get American radio stations just as well. After a while, this came to seem more informative than watching over and over again as the second plane banked to zoom quite deliberately into the tower

Yet as the afternoon wore on the strengths of the web appeared more closely. It makes a kind of communal experience possible. I was also logged into the Well, a bulletin board in San Francisco, where a great many New Yorkers, including a couple of friends of mine, are members. And on the well, in the first few hours of the attack, anyone watching any of the attacks on television, and one man in Washington watching them out of his window, could post what they were seeing and hearing. It was nearly as immediate an experience as being in a newsroom.

The extraordinary intimacy of online conversations, and the sense that you know the people involved, even if you have never met them, provided some of the most valuable moments of the next week and some perspectives you could get nowhere else. They were rich in the sort of details that history remembers and newspapers forget: a woman in New York is worried for her pet lizards, because for a week she has been unable to buy them crickets to eat. Should she feed them fruit flies instead? Apparently there is still a place in Manhattan where you can buy mutant fruit flies. When you want to think about the complexities of modern civilisations, which terrorism so disrupts, those hungry lizards are a good place to start.

Then the web offers an extraordinary number of newspapers. You really can see at once how the world seems from Washington, Miami, or New York. This could be a very enheartening experience: some of the columnists in San Francisco were so much wiser and more thoughtful than you would expect in a country that was under attack. The online magazine Salon published a very moving letter from an Afghan who had lived in the US for the last 30 years, under the headline "You canít bomb us back to the Stone Age. Weíre there already."

Of course, the internet also brings you close to every sort of hysteric and nut. Within 24 hours of the attack, one noted online libertarian had explained that the hijackings could have been prevented if only the government hadnít stopped law-abiding citizens from carrying their guns on board. And there is nothing like an online argument to make you realise the futility of trying to persuade otherwise well-educated Americans that a successful foreign policy must involve understanding foreigners. But nothing I read was wackier than some of the stuff published in reputable newspapers, and where else but online could I have discovered that heroic chaplain to the New York Fire Department, whose funeral was the first of any of the victimsí, had been one of the most prominent gay Catholic priests in New York City?

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