September 11th, 2011

The events that occurred ten years ago were undeniably horrific, scary and tragic. They were also an opportunity to show how strong democratic values are; to show how powerful reason is when armed with information; to unite behind our belief in freedom of speech and freedom of knowledge.

I was working at Daily Information, writing some new features for their web platform. It was a little past two in the afternoon, and I was sitting with one of the high school students who occasionally did work there, and its proprietor, John Rose. John was an eccentric but brilliant man – an outsider entrepreneur who had become the hub for a cross-section of Oxford life. (I learned a lot from him, and he’s massively influenced everything I’ve done since.) He had set up the office in the basement of a house he owned; paper, computer parts and assorted detritus occupied every available surface. Although I was writing code and checking on the website, we would often break for conversation. (A sample John Rose icebreaker: “aren’t other people awful?”)

My dad happened to be nearby, and came into the office to tell me what had happened. The second plane had hit by this time, and it was obvious that it wasn’t an accident. He feared that this was the prelude to something bigger. We had ISDN in the office, and we immediately began checking the news sites: the BBC, CNN, and so on. I remember vividly that within a few minutes, the only website that stayed up was the Guardian, and we all sat there at our Windows 2000 workstations, on a makeshift network in a cluttered office in North Oxford, reloading the page in the newly-released Internet Explorer 6 and gasping in horror at each new revelation. John had been to New York not long before, and told us about his trip to the top of the World Trade Center. By 5pm, though, we’d returned to work, shaken but determined to continue.

I waited at the bus stop for twenty minutes that evening, and remember thinking that the world had changed irrevocably. Although I would become increasingly politicized over the next few months (and have been ever since), I didn’t know enough about the world to really understand what was going to happen. But I knew enough that day to understand that President Bush would probably want to go to war, and that rather than being mourned as a great loss, this was going to be used as an excuse to do some pretty terrible things. I remember watching the faces of the people driving by, behind the wheel or sitting in the Oxford buses, searching in vain for a mirror of the unease that was welling up inside of me. Person after person seemed unemotional; distant; detached.

I browsed my Livejournal friends page that night, using the Demon Internet dial-up connection at my parents’ house (I was staying with them that autumn), and reactions ran the gamut from fear to – and here I sadly quote word-for-word, the post etched forever on my memory – “burn, America, burn!”

It wasn’t a lone sentiment. I was the only American in my friends group, and many (but by no means all) of the people I knew felt that, at least to a certain extent, America deserved this. Not in the third world, not in the midst of fundamentalist religion – but well-educated, middle class kids all over England. I’m close to being a third culture child, and often say that my family is my nationality and my religion all at once, but for the first time in my life I found myself defending one of my source countries. I love America, and I love the values of its people – even when its government is clearly not in sync.

The Onion said it best, of course, both following the attacks and a year earlier, when George W Bush finally assumed the Presidency. And as the insanity ramped up and the Bush administration began to drag much of the western world into illegal wars (enabled by a fabrication or two from Tony Blair’s government in the UK), news sources who dared to bring the irregularities to light had their wings duly clipped. I was one of over a million people – over 2% of the entire population of the UK – who marched against the impending war in Iraq. Nothing happened; the war went ahead as planned. And as the government failed us, and the TV news became more obviously watered down, two sources stood out. One was the Daily Show, which became the primary political commentary source for a generation by pointing out the increasing hypocrisy. And the other one was the vast expanse of independent websites and communities on the web.

This is my personal opinion about the decline of the news media over the last decade: they’re dying not because someone came up with a better model, but because they lost our trust. From the events of September 11th itself, through Enron the month afterwards, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the entirety of the Bush Administration, and so on and so on and so on (pick a scandal, any scandal), right up to the curated illogicality and overstated popularity of the Tea Party, my perception is that, as a whole, the news media hasn’t been with us. Instead, I think the best analysis has been found in books (a hat doff to my colleague Jim Moore, whose book Bush’s Brain was one of the first in-depth criticisms of Bush); in magazines like Rolling Stone and the New Yorker (Seymour Hersh has become a personal hero); in documentary movies (Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, though imperfect, is a kind of turning point). The television news and the daily newspaper, once staples of modern life, have all but obsoleted themselves by bowing to pressure to neuter the principles that underwrite their content, and by reacting poorly to their economic decline. This is a tragedy of democracy, because my god, the investigative journalists are still out there. We need them more than ever, but they’ve lost their platforms, either because those platforms have lost their ability to be honest, or because they’ve lost their ability to pay for experienced journalists (or both).

On the web, we are at the forefront of a new kind of discourse – we not only participate in the content, as I am with this piece, but also by influencing the form of conversation, debate, communication and dissemination. Imagine being back in the 17th century, inventing the form of the newspaper, or creating the newsreel in 1908 – that’s what our industry is doing today, except we’re also inventing the wire, the telephone, the telediagraph, the telex, the fax machine and the wire photo: the back-end technology that makes the content that goes into the end-user product possible. Sure, we’re building cool new music apps or remixing kitten pics, but we’re also influencing how people will create and consume information for generations. It’s an exciting field to be in, but it’s also a great responsibility. Information and community sit together at the center of democracy.

Back to those events ten years ago; for me, back to sitting at a bus stop, watching the faces of passers-by, searching for meaning and wondering what would happen next. I think there’s great value in reflection and remembrance on September 11th, not only of the tragedy that occurred, but all of the tragedies and all of the injustices that occurred in its name. This was an opportunity to show how strong democratic values are; to show how powerful reason is when armed with information and education; to unite behind our belief in freedom of speech and freedom of knowledge. I believe that in the content of our actions, discourse and stated values, we went the other way.

But if we remember what’s important, and build what we know, we have the promise, perhaps more than ever, of creating something much greater. Freedom is a core value of both us as a people and us as an industry. Let’s bring it on home.

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