Essays on Technology and Culture

Knowing, Communicating, and the Aftermath

Nearly fourteen years ago, two teenagers committed an unspeakable act of brutal violence against their fellow high school students. That day, seventeen-hundred or so miles from that tragedy, I was in my own high school, unaware. This was before social media as we know it was even a dream, and before even a high school student had an Internet connection in their pocket. Still, somehow, word got around about what was happening in Colorado. As we left that day, I noticed a number of odd looks in my direction. I was already a bit of a loner in my school, and for some reason that morning, I’d opted to wear army fatigue pants and an olive drab t-shirt to class. Still, confusion mostly reigned that day.

It wasn’t until any of us got home that we could see the disaster unfolding. Pictures of students running from a sprawling suburban high school, rumors of bombs under cars, gunshots, terror. The next day we had names, faces, reports of last words, and scapegoats to pin the actions of two who would be forever unable to speak for themselves again. In its wake, metal detectors and X-ray machines were stuffed into my inner-city school’s entryway, more to assuage the fears of parents and administrators than our own. Our student fears were more grounded, knowing full well that if anyone tried to shoot up our school, to “Pull a Columbine” in the parlance, would find the new security measures to be a nuisance at best.

In the intervening decade and a half, we’ve seen countless tragedies on scales as grand as 9/11 and as seemingly small as the man who crashed his plane into an IRS field office in Texas. Each time, it seems the reaction cycle becomes shorter and shorter. It used to be that we wouldn’t know anything that we had not seen with our own eyes until we read the newspaper the next day. Radio and then television shortened the time span so that for decades, we could learn the horrors of the day over dinner or just before bedtime. The earliest days of the Internet made breaking news all the more immediate, but until only a few years ago, it was largely a one-way communication medium.

I first heard about the Boston Marathon explosions on Twitter, while posting something on my company’s social media feeds, and immediately thought “I’ve seen this film before.” Whether it was the Newtown massacre, Aurora, to whatever else you care to name in the last few years, I knew there would be finger-pointing, false reports of further horrors, and tasteless jokes written to deal with the tension of not knowing. In darker corners of the Internet, there would be claims of “false flags” and conspiracy. None of this is new. It’s a quirk, to put it mildly, of human psychology, where in the face of ambiguity, we fill in the details with our own experience and knowledge, or the lack thereof.

The instant nature of modern communication, the disintermediation of social media, and the even footing these technologies offer our voices has made it easier for misinformation to spread and blame to be assigned. The biggest difference between now, and then, is that they spread at exponentially faster speeds, to exponentially larger audiences. And yet, there’s an upside to this. Starting with the Aurora massacre, and continuing today, citizen journalists on Reddit and elsewhere have taken on the task of sorting the misinformation from the information, posting as many facts as they can verify, and keeping people up to date. They do a service that is all too necessary these days, with no recompense.

For the rest of us, it comes down to this: be prudent about what you read and be prudent about what you post. Technology is a transformative tool, but the fundamental decisions of how we apply this tool have not changed. There’s no reason, no excuse, for us to use this tool to bring harm, deliberate or otherwise. The facts of what has occurred will shake out in time. Patience is what we need most in trying times, a patience that seems almost contrary to the nature of things. Yet, if we can tolerate that ambiguity, trust ourselves, and trust those we’ve tasked with the job of answering our questions, we will be all the better for it.