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A Safety Net

TV provided horrific news. The Internet provided emotional safety.
December 1, 2001

Nineteen sixty-two. In the same year as the Cuban missile crisis, the United States Air Force launched a research collaboration with the Rand Corporation designed to provide a reliable system of communication in the case of an enemy attack on North America. Drawing on research at MIT and elsewhere, Rand engineer Paul Baran proposed a packet-switching network that would enable the rapid rerouting of data throughout a decentralized communications system. Baran’s instructions were to ensure “minimum essential communications” and thus guarantee “second strike” capability; he proposed an even more robust system allowing contact among as many as a hundred networked computers. Baran’s proposal was an important landmark in the Internet’s prehistory.

September 11, 2001. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon launched the first American “war” of the digital age, the first military crisis during which a significant portion of the American public had Net access. One might well ask, then, how well the Internet functioned as an emergency communications network. In the years since Baran’s proposal, the Net has become something larger than what the Rand researchers might have imagined-a vast network linking the civilian population rather than a modest system that ensures data flow between bunkers. “War,” for the moment, anyway, means something significantly different as well-a shift from nightmares of nuclear attack to the reality of terrorist actions. And the communications that have turned out to be the most essential in the wake of those actions are not those aimed at coordinating a swift military strike, but rather those that express the loss and fear of the civilian population.

From a purely technical perspective, the system worked better than anyone might have anticipated. While the World Trade Center housed an important relay system for cell phones, and its destruction thus left many New Yorkers without telecommunications, there was no significant national disruption of the computer networks. In the hour following the attacks, many national news Web sites were swamped by a sudden surge in traffic. But within a few hours, they had stripped down their front pages and expanded the number of mirror sites. And the Net itself never faltered. Countless e-mails-in many cases, final messages-were sent from the World Trade Center when the victims of the attack were unable to reach their loved ones by telephone, and many more were sent by people around the country seeking any kind of information about friends or family who were unaccounted for following the buildings’ collapse.

Americans returned to network television in the days following the tragedy, reassured by the familiar voices of the news anchors, overwhelmed by the repeated images of the airplane striking the second tower, engulfed in expressions of nationalism. The networks offered nonstop coverage without commercial interruption for more than 90 hours, the longest single block of news coverage in the history of American broadcasting, and viewership was at a record high. Yet the Net and the Web served personal needs that these more public channels of information could never touch.

In recent years, some have expressed doubt that online communities are real communities with hearts and souls. They surely would not have expected the enormous outpouring of grief and caring that flowed through the Internet in the days following September 11. My colleagues describe how their friends and families began to circulate poetry as part of the process of coping with their feelings of powerlessness and anxiety. Net groups reached out to their members in New York and Washington, DC, or found themselves confronting feelings of enormous loss over the deaths of people they had only met online and never knew face to face. Fan discussion lists organized to donate blood or otherwise support the relief efforts. In my own case, my e-mail to my parents was recirculated to more distant family members or people in their church community.

And in this manner, messages-both profound and trivial-flowed from one enclave to another. Intellectuals sent analyses, churches prayers, militants hate mail, pacifists cries for peace and companies spam. Netscape demonstrated the reductive click-here menu-driven triviality of commercial interactivity, asking respondents to decide whether they felt sad, shocked or angry at what had occurred. We may never know how many people received the insightful words of Afghan-American author Tamim Ansary, who warned us that we could not bomb his homeland back to the Stone Age, because after decades of occupation it was already there, or the rather distasteful parody of bin Laden set to the verse of Doctor Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Despite the seeming exhaustiveness of the television newscasts, many used the Web to read foreign coverage and thus gain a better perspective on the United States’ position in the world. Many circulated petitions or words of protest or calls to arms, returning to an ideal of grass-roots democratic participation which stands in stark contrast to the ideas about military authority and elite decision-making that shaped the original Rand studies.

This was a new kind of national crisis and it demanded a new kind of emergency communications system. What Americans needed was a safety net, not an information superhighway. I think they found it was already there.

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