Society

Bracketing Bin Laden: 9/11 And The New Global 'Now'

The violent end to Osama bin Laden's violent life brings all of us all back to reflect on that day in 2001 when so much changed. But in looking at the 10 years bracketing 9/11 and today, it's the transformation of culture through technology that is striking and, in many ways, symbolizes how the likes of Bin Laden failed.

Bin Laden and al-Qaida clearly understood the power of images in an era of 24-hour news. Winning a moment on the world's TV screens has always been the goal of terrorists. But at the moment of their cruel act the operatives of al-Qaida could, like the rest of us, only dimly understand the power of the Internet.

The commercial web was less than 10 years old on 9/11. The terror of the falling towers may have been the first truly global Internet event, the first time the entire world turned to the web (hitting refresh a thousand, thousand times) for instant access to events as they played out.

In the decades before 9/11 there had been other shared national or global "moments," usually of horror, when an entire population learned simultaneously of an event that would change the course of history. This is the legacy of our telecommunications technologies and it is important to understand how new this experience of a globe spanning "now" remains.

Even 150 years ago, news of the Civil War's beginning took weeks or months to spread across the nation. As we learned to control invisible currents of electrons and electromagnetic waves of energy, notions of separation in time and space diminished. From use of "the wireless" and telegraph to break news of the Titanic's sinking in 1912 to the televised announcement of President Kennedy's assassination in 1963, we have been experimenting with the construction of a single global "now," a single, global present, for just over a century.

For the younger generations alive today, 9/11 defined that moment when the world crossed over to new, deeper sense of "now." The entire planet seemed to be connected that day as events played out.

From that networked beginning, however, the very meaning of "events playing out" has been transformed as the individual view and the individual stake in the global instant coalesced into new reality. In 2001 we had just begun a wired reworking of shared experience that has now, 10 years later, reshaped the contours of culture.

In 2001 cell-phone cameras were, at best, a novelty. By 2011 countless cellphone cameras — combined with the power of YouTube — stand ready to become a public witness to the mundane, the horrific and the historic.

In 2001 social networks had yet to move fully online; the term still evoked images of fraternities and social clubs. By 2011, Facebook had long since been transformed from a site for hooking up college students to a shared public square. It was the engine Arab protesters desperate for change used to initiate a spring that looked very different than bin Laden's warped vision of revolution.

In 2001 the path to an ever-expanding "online" universe was traced through wires running from the wall to your computer. By 2011, wi-fi connections and Web services in "the cloud" were commonplace. The totality of human knowledge and a planet's worth of activity was as close as the thin plastic rectangle packed with microchips you carry in your pocket.

The 10 years separating the tragedy of bin Laden's 9/11 "success" and his final end in a walled compound on Monday have seen the whole world grow a radically new, radically transformative shared sense of "now."

Over those 10 years, our global present has become a tightly braided fabric of human experience woven together with a pervasive Internet.

Through the products of our science and technology, through Facebook, Twitter accounts and GPS-enabled smart phones, we have not only created a global present, we have — against all odds — made the universal present a personal experience.

From Egyptian's using Facebook to organize a revolution to American's using Facebook to watch that revolution, the global present is no longer the domain of some remote entity called "the news."

Early on bin Laden and al-Qaida may have thought the Web would become an instrument of their victory, a tool for recruiting the dispossessed to their medieval mindset. While that danger remains, it has generally faded.

Instead, the wireless world became something entirely different — an endlessly inventive forum allowing ordinary people to build connections in the present. As we have seen, those connections can be strong enough to shape the future. The growth of that possibility may just be the best news of all.

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