942 Words

Technology During Tragedy

By Edward B. Driscoll, Jr.




Everyone has their own stories about where they were, and what they did on September 11--this is one is mine.

This article was originally written for National Review Online's Financial column, during the terrible week between Tuesday, September 11, and the following Monday, when the markets were closed. While the article itself was never used, a couple of paragraphs of it found its way into the introduction for a symposium I assembled on technology on Monday, September 17.


There are no atheists in foxholes, the old cliché goes, and there were no Luddites on September 11. Technology, in the form of telephones, cellphones, satellite and cable TV and perhaps most impressively, the Internet allowed many Americans to stay informed of the day’s terrible events without leaving their homes—probably the safest place for them to be on that horrific day, and even helped a few people to be rescued.

At about 6:45 a.m. Pacific time, we were awakened by our phone. On it was a friend from Britain, whom we had met when he was a senior employee in a San Jose dot-com start-up, but was forced to move back to England after the inevitable layoffs of his start-up began.


"Turn on the TV"

His message to my wife? "Turn on your TV." Which channel? "Any channel." As she blearily talked to him, I fumbled for my glasses, fumbled for the remote, couldn’t find it, and crawled out of bed to manually turn on the set.

The results were the images the nation spent the day having seared into its collective brains, beginning with a split screen of the World Trade Center in flames, alongside a replay of one of the planes going into the second tower to be hit. We managed to wake up just in time for the announcement that another plane had just been flown into the Pentagon.

We then turned on our laptop, plugged it into one of two LAN jacks I had installed a year ago in our bedroom (to my wife’s amusement, back then) and alternated between watching the news via satellite, and getting what information we could from the Web via our cable modem. We also used the Web to chat with friends online via instant messages, and on two of our three phone lines to make sure they were OK. Like many Americans, we have a friend who works very, very near the World Trade Center, and several members of my wife’s family are scattered about Manhattan.

Although phone service to all of Manhattan York was terribly slow to non-existent, we were able to find a cousin via email and a friend in an online forum. He had gone online hoping to find someone to "report in with" and we were online at the same time, looking for him.

Our friends and family were all very, very lucky—it just took a while for some of them to check in or for us to reach them, due to the terrible chaos and outage of phone service to Manhattan. Our friend who’s office was located far too close to ground zero for comfort managed to walk back to her apartment, call another friend in Boston, who called us soon with the good news, soon after we watched the World Trade Center implode with our chins located somewhere near the floor.

We eventually moved to our den, which we’ve often dubbed "Mission Control". Two of our PCs sit side by side on a custom built table with a two-line telephone between them, facing our home theater rig. It’s a widescreen TV and UltimateTV box, among other technological goodies. More LAN cables hidden in the walls and attic run back to the hub in my wife’s home office and cable modem. We sat glued in the den for most of the afternoon and evening, repeating the pattern, spending much of our time with one browser opened to our favorite chat room, as more friends checked in from the New York area, other browsers open to news sites. I toggled the UltimateTV box’s picture-in-picture function between Fox News and CNN for most of the day.


The Remarkable Web

The Web proved to be remarkably robust on this long, terrible day. While some news pages were slow (occasionally The Drudge Report, and most noticeably, the story uploaded late at night onto The Boston Herald’s site about suspects leaving behind evidence in a rented car, which both Matt Drudge and Fox News managed to mention virtually simultaneously), others took up the slack. (NRO did its usual superb job of reporting the day’s events, and I say that strictly as a fan, not as an occasional contributor.) Wired magazine’s news page reported that Slashdot, normally a page devoted to high-tech, high-geek technology news, was devoting its space on Tuesday almost exclusively to coverage of the day’s nightmares. Even Dal.net, a totally non-news oriented site that provides live chat interconnectivity had a page provided updated news and hastily created, but very detailed time lines.

Near the end of the day, I logged onto the Reason Web site to see what they had to say. Reading Charles Paul Freund’s brilliant column on how the terrorists combined the sheer scale of their horrific deeds with what in retrospect seems like an uncanny knowledge of what would be the media’s response, I felt a sense of guilt and nausea at how easily we all were manipulated by the terrorists into a sense of numbness, fear and dread.


Getting Back to Business—Sooner Rather than Later

But for most of the day, the initial numbness transformed itself into anger and resolve. Virginia Postrel, on one of the few Web logs worth the pixels they’re printed on, hit it right on the nose with her comments that Americans need to shake themselves out of any stupor they’re in, roll up their sleeves, and get back to work.

And she’s right. My wife was surprisingly frustrated by the comments of the normally crisp and cool Neil Cavuto, Fox News’ financial anchor, who suggested that destroying the World Trade Center would be a lasting, devastating blow to our financial markets. Our guess is that they will be back, up and running, sooner, rather than later. The New York Stock Exchange still stands, the Chicago Merc, the Philadelphia, and other regional stock exchanges still stand. Perhaps these exchanges will be pressed into temporary double duty to replace the facilities and communication equipment destroyed. Or perhaps other solutions will be found. "This is America", as Al Gore repeatedly reminded us, during another crisis, that one fortunately bloodless, but more protracted. America, thanks to its technology, shaped, driven and controlled by the unique spirit of its people, will quickly be back in business.


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