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Technology and Terror


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Whenever political civility is shattered by senseless acts of violence, people invariably look for reasons why. In the digital age, the blame has increasingly been leveled against the forces of technology. This occurred last week during the terrorist attacks on Mumbai, where 10 terrorists besieged the financial capital of India and murdered at least 173.

With the siege still underway, the finger was waved at microblogging site Twitter. A rumor quickly emerged that the terrorists themselves were tracking the content on Twitter to monitor law enforcement advances, thereby prolonging the siege and increasing its severity. But it's unlikely the ephemeral content on Twitter (which updates several times a minute) could have been useful to the terrorists, who had other things to worry about at the time.

Throughout the siege, Twitter-which allows users to communicate through short SMS-like "tweets"-became the hotbed for new information regarding the attacks. The social utility allows peers to report to other peers, thereby bypassing the editorial process that mainstream news networks require. Perhaps for this reason people are worried that the anarchistic structure of Twitter could have contributed to the attacks.

Such hasty, paranoid accusations against technology are becoming commonplace. Following the World Trade Center attacks, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, with a knack for viewing the world through the lens of technological determinism, meandered, "I've been wondering how the entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley were looking at the 9/11 tragedy-whether it was giving them any pause about the wired world they've been building and the assumptions they are building it upon."

As media critic Siva Vaidhyanathan points out in his book "The Anarchist in the Library," there's something inane about Friedman's assertion that software developers should re-think their products based on the fact that terrorists might use them. What's more, the claim espouses a double standard: Why hold Travelocity accountable for allowing terrorists to purchase airline tickets while not assigning responsibility to a company like Stanley Tools for providing cardboard box cutters?

Still, sites like Twitter did play a substantial role in the Mumbai attack. As a location where citizen journalists aggregate, Twitter was (and is) instrumental in manufacturing a heightened style of reporting that was more in-depth and up-to-date than anything you would have seen on TV. On Twitter, the reporting came from the bottom-up: Individuals in Mumbai communicated rapidly exchanged tweets by cell phones and laptops while news networks dealing in standard media like television and newspapers reported upon the details after the fact. In this way, the reporting itself becomes a form of immersive entertainment. Ergo the recently coined term "infotainment."

Like last April's massacre at Virginia Tech-in which a troubled student lashed out by killing 32 people at his university-the significance of the Mumbai attack emerges not just from the occurrence of the attack itself. Instead, the weight of the event is part and parcel of how the event unfolded and how that unfolding became public through a variety of media sources.

Since this will be the last edition of this column, I leave you with the following words: A technology may not be neutral, but its character is revealed by its use. It would be a mistake to confuse the effect of the attacks-concerned citizens coming together to share information-with the cause. As Barack Obama's press release on the day of the attack stated, the real enemy is "hateful ideology." Beware of that ideology, not your cellphone.

Tell Ariel what you think about Twitter at [email protected]

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