Media stories dealing with the tenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks in the US are determined to claim that the terror events of that day “changed everything.” And while it is reasonable to suggest that flying commercial, passenger laden airplanes into American landmarks did change the way America views itself and is viewed, it is simplistic to suggest that the act alone changed everything.
Rather, the digital technology that America championed, promoted and sold as the latest in the endless quest for human emancipation was the thing what changed everything. Digital technology changed everything by making the coordination of the attacks possible, then it doubly changed everything by more deeply invoking the event into the public mind again and again, through that same technology. This multiplication effect becomes clearer every year, as recollections of September 11, 2001 and the World Trade Center events are ramped up with an intensification that is fed by the digital.
The combination of the digitally refined – pixilated – imagery is reinforced by digital audio. For example, this year, 2011 the tenth anniversary, the public is offered a new series of “never before heard” telephone calls of the last few seconds of life for the tragic souls about to ride to their deaths as the Twin Towers collapsed, by The New York Times.
Vanity Fair has offered a collection of photos so clear in their clarity that we have to struggle to find a vocabulary to describe what they portray – the annihilation of the innocents. The closest media language may be in iconography, especially the massive classic oil painting images by the likes of Giotto showing the Head of John the Baptist. This classical iconic offers a single image of the grotesqueries of human behavior.
Picasso’s Guernica follows a similar trajectory – the single image in the Prado Galley in Madrid, protected by a massive plate of glass to keep the fascist protesters from attacking it – searing its singularity into the mind’s eye, its morality and anti-war sensibility delivered by a hand trembling with anger and disgust at Franco’s Falangists.
The digital takes us beyond this point of singular energy. We are surrounded by anger and disgust, but in a mutual feeding frenzy of digital disbursement. The streams of information seem endless, puncturing any sense of security, always demanding a response from an exhausted mine of emotion.
The cell phone and the internet was the change that changed everything. They appeared before September 11 and provided the communication momentum and the facility for the final act of self destruction of the hijackers and innocent citizens. Then they fed the media lode of infinite digital stimulation.
If you chuckled at the double entendre at that last line, that’s OK. I have noted in my recent book, Uprising: The Internet’s Unintended Consequences, that internet pornography has powerfully engaged internet users with more sexual stimulation than ever before: infinite digital stimulation indeed. It is, as I suggested before, part of the continuum of intensification that the internet has created – huge contradictions in both the positive and negative aspects of human nature.
September 11 , 2001 and its anniversaries embody both aspects of the contradictions. The digital feeds the best and worst of human nature. It facilitates the record through videos in mobile phones, to offer all the best and worst of human behavior. For the worst - the recording of a British soldier abusing to death an innocent Iraqi civilian comes to mind, as it is played on television, in another enless loop of digital dissemination and feeback. For the best – apparently You Tube videos of cats and kittens are a new source of pleasure!
September 11 2001 was a declaration of a new war. War after all that is not worth noting in much of the discussion. But war we can watch with more clarity, depth and empathy as never before. After the television news, the kids can go and play Duke Nukem: all digital all the time. (Note to self – the kids don’t watch the news and don’t know about war unless they need a job and enlist.)
Americans are historically masterful at overstating events in their exceptional history. Then, in order to raise the stakes in history, they dream of becoming more exceptional still. According to most popular contemporary history, Pearl Harbor was the major event of the Second World War even though informed and critical history increasingly suggests that it can be better understood as an initial side show. It has generally relied on Hollywood to keep the fire of infamy and the myth of exceptionalism alive.
Digital media takes that model of exception making to propound even greater forms of exceptionalism. It offers not only the exceptional, but the precision of the image, the sound and the event as powerfully invested with immediacy, speed and granularity. Every pore, every miserable detail, scars and blemishes are there or not – photo shopped in and out. With this level of detail we must be exceptional?
The digital offers us the unrestrained insider’s view of the human condition. Are we up for it? Is it too much? This is the question that proletarianization prompts.
By giving users so much access to the details of 9-11, the internet cuts them adrift from the certainty of the past.
The internet does not however offer us the future. That would suggest a clear end point. The only singularity in the digital is the absence of an end point. There is no future as an end point, only increasingly intense fragments, pixilated, digitized and flowing faster and faster through and into chaos.
Every effort to give the public more digital detail adds to the uncertainty of the present. It is possible to see more, to have more information, even while we know less about why it happened.
What we do know is that without the digital, 9-11 would not have happened. There’s a photo of Mohammed Atta the “leader” of the airplane hijackers moving through Boston airport security while talking on his mobile phone. Digital telephone was used to coordinate “the event” into the spectacular, the moment of many points of impact.
The digital changed everything: the telephone as terror, the digital as destroyer