Kids used to ask each other: If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears, does it make a sound? Now there’s a microphone in every tree and a loudspeaker on every branch, not to mention the video cameras, and we’ve entered the condition that David Foster Wallace called Total Noise: “the tsunami of available fact, context, and perspective.”
This week was a watershed for Total Noise. When terrible things happen, people naturally reach out for information, which used to mean turning on the television. The rewards (and I use the word in its Pavlovian sense) can be visceral and immediate, if you want to see more bombs explode or towers fall, and plenty of us do. But others are learning not to do that.
The Boston bombings, shootings, car chase, and manhunt found the ecosystem of information in a strange and unstable state: Twitter on the rise, cable TV in disarray, Internet vigilantes bleeding into the FBI’s staggeringly complex (and triumphant) crash program of forensic video analysis. If there ever was a dividing line between cyberspace and what we used to call the “real world,” it vanished last week.
Microblogging and social media intruded sharply upon the chain of events. The @CambridgePolice, having tweeted SUSPICIOUS PACKAGE reports through Thursday night and Friday morning, stopped tweeting in case the 19-year-old fugitive Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was glued to his cell phone like everyone else (“monitoring police response via social media”). And why wouldn’t he be? The Internet revealed his supposed Twitter name, which instantly acquired tens of thousands of new followers.
Reddit users assembled a crowd-sourced map of the Thursday-night shootings and carjacking. The @Boston_Police begged other tweeters to stop “Broadcasting Tactical Positions of Homes Being Searched.” Someone instantly registered the domain name shouldIlivetweetthescanner.info in order to post a short message: “NO. NO, NO and NO.”
The slain MIT police officer, Sean Collier, was memorialized on an Officer Down Memorial Page. The Chechen president, Ramzan Kadyrov, a.k.a. kadyrov_95, turned to Instagram to announce that, whatever had happened, it was America’s own fault. One of the more popular Twitter hashtags was #surreal. That would have been useful for television news, too, if they had hashtags.
I managed to evade the television for several days after the bombing. You can get your cable news secondhand, via Twitter or the blogs, which is a little like using a mirror to avoid gazing upon the Gorgon directly. If you did that Wednesday afternoon, you knew something was going on when William Gibson tweeted some weather: “Fog ’o news pea soup solid in Boston right now.” Followed minutes later by the London journalist Charlie Brooker: “CNN is essentially just footage of reporters in the street staring in bewilderment at their iPhones.”
Fog of News was right. At 1:16 p.m., the reporter John King told the anchor Wolf Blitzer that the police had identified a suspect. “A dark-skinned male,” he said, a bit nervously, “because of the sensitivities some people will take offense even at saying that.” Blitzer said, “We can’t say whether the person spoke with a foreign accent or an American accent or anything like that, that would be premature.”
At 1:45, Blitzer cut back to King for “more information, exclusive reporting”—namely, that an arrest had been made. “A dramatic, dramatic shift,” King said. Meanwhile, and all along, background video loops: smoke and blood and people running. Carnage recycled as eye candy.
“I want to be precise, and I want to be sure we have it right,” said Blitzer at 1:51. “It’s important to get this information out there to the American public and important to get this information out there in general, but it’s much more important to make sure that we’re precise and accurate.” King replied: “An arrest has been made. Both Fran [Townsend]’s federal source and my Boston source say an arrest has been made.”
None of this, of course, was true. No arrest had been made. No suspect had even been identified. Nor was it “important to get this information out there in general.” There was no information, and no one needed it.
But when everyone is monitoring everyone else, no one can bear to be left out. Fox News, along with the Associated Press, the Boston Globe, and various local stations, leaped in to report the nonexistent suspect in custody. They all cited unnamed sources and later blamed the sources. The Keystone Koppish retreat lasted about an hour. My favorite bit came on CNN at 2:30, from Fran Townsend, former Homeland Security adviser to George W. Bush and now professional television “contributor”:
“The situation is very fluid … There was a misunderstanding, I mean, that was said to me, not so much that we have misunderstood but that there has been a misunderstanding and lots of cross-communications and understandably, as law enforcement tries to work through this, what they’ve got, who it is, what the purpose of that is, and what the next steps are. So, I myself have had conflicting reports, and I wanted just to be clear with you that they think that’s a result of the chaos and the quickly unfolding law-enforcement situation up in Boston.”