“At the end of the day, someone is going to be right.”
~Brian Williams, NBC Anchor
Because terrorism in the United States is an (astonishingly) infrequent phenomenon, the April 15 bombing of the Boston Marathon demands of us to make “sense” of it. But at the same time, it is this infrequency that tempts us to draw grandiose conclusions about What It All Means and How Everything Is Different Now. This species of sensemaking should be considered distinct from, say, the kind that goes on in societies that are frequently targeted. Within the context of Pakistan's 652 bombings in 2012, Rafia Zakaria considers a primary purpose of journalism to be the enactment of “rituals of caring, made so repetitious by the sheer frequency of terror attacks; …in preventing the normalization of violence and senseless evil, they keep a society human.” Mercifully, this is not the case here. We probably have the luxury of a few months until the next attack, so let us ponder what the Boston Marathon bombings “want” to tell us.
Were we offered a weary reminder of the racism that always seems to be lurking just below the surface of American society? Indeed. Further proof of Americans' abiding ignorance of geography? Check. A prime opportunity for yet another efflorescence of conspiracy theorists? Yawn. Please tell us something new.
Actually, in the case of Boston, conspiracy theory is a pretty good place to begin. The deepest conceptual failure of conspiracy, as an ontological mode, is its presupposition of a larger, unifying order. Since a benevolent conspiracy is not a conspiracy but really just a miracle – and a conspiracy that is indifferent to us is, by definition, impossible to discern – the fact that conspiracies are also evil is entirely redundant. The goal of identifying (and then wallowing in) a conspiracy, is not so much about the subsequent pursuit of justice, as it is about the reassurance that the world is not chaotic; that however you might detest its presence and seek to escape its influence, there is a deliberate design.
The problem is originary: we are sensemaking creatures. In this light, conspiracy is only our most extreme indulgence of that bedrock behavior. The only thing better than every thing meaning something, is if the meaning of every thing belongs to the same something. But confronted with the immediacy of the Boston bombings, the need to quickly interpret – or, more accurately, create – some kind of meaning is difficult to resist, and technologies, old and new, for better or worse, stood ready to lend a perhaps dubious hand.
Philosopher Rick Roderick, in a 1993 lecture entitled “Habermas and the Fragile Dignity of Humanity” makes a brief, telling aside: “in the late 20th century, we are in a situation where interpretation has never been more difficult.” Citing television as an example of an object that resists interpretation, he goes on to assert that:
Orwell was a pie-eyed optimist…Orwell's vision of a horrible future – a boot stomping on a human face forever – is a utopian image because he assumed there would be resistance, and human faces. Both of which may turn out to be false. 1984 is not a book that scares me anymore.
Of course, Orwell's worldview in 1984 was shaped by the Spanish Civil War, World War II, and little else, since tuberculosis had claimed him by 1950. Conflict was mostly militarized, explicit and even formalistic; claims of social control were predicated upon the ongoing existence of such wars. Authority physically manifested itself in the form of Franco and later Stalin – whom Orwell found particularly odious – and the accompanying state security apparatus. Resistance was to be rubbed out mercilessly, through surveillance, interrogation and betrayal not only of individuals, but of language itself. But resistance still existed as an oppositional force.
For Roderick, born the year before Orwell's death, this kind of explicit resistance had been subverted. Consider the advent of television: as a one-way broadcast medium, television was the perfect conduit for the population-wide, normalizing activities of post-war consumer culture: material prosperity, entertainment and advertising. This is what Roderick means when he thinks of television as “closed” to interpretation; it is a fundamentally Foucauldian view. And he was largely right, at least while the near-monopolistic broadcast model remained ascendant. But in the same way Orwell could not have anticipated the utter dissolution of resistance as he conceptualized it, pre-Web commentators ought to be excused for not anticipating the way in which commercial communication technologies created the conditions for the collapse of those very same models.
However, one didn't have to wait for the advent of the Web to see television threatened. Television had already sowed the seeds of its own collapse with the rise of cable and the 24-hour news cycle. Pioneered by CNN, which launched on June 1, 1980 (you can watch the utterly banal first minutes of CNN's life here), its insatiable appetite for news was not without unintended consequences. Two years prior to Roderick's comments, CNN had had a watershed moment in its coverage of the first Persian Gulf War, when it was the first network to provide a live feed of the pre-invasion air war. Decisionmakers found themselves laboring under the so-called “CNN effect:” the always-on nature of cable news artificially increased the pace of decisionmaking, and put politicians and even the military in a constant, reactive crouch. While the extent of the effect is debatable, 24-hour cable news should nevertheless be seen as a touchstone in the progressive tightening of feedback loops between those reporting and those making the news. This performative action of the former upon the latter – that is, the idea that “we journalists are performing journalism all the time, and therefore you decisionmakers must be performing decisions all the time, too” – has been further exacerbated by the rise of dozens of competitors to CNN. Which, only logically, leads us to ask whether there is enough news to keep up with the demands made by these entities.
The Boston bombings provide one answer. The yelling about How Everything Is Different Now has generally revolved around social media's decisive insertion into this system of loops, and how social media has brought in a third constituency, namely, everyone else (that is, everyone who has a internet access and the savvy to use and exchange information on said social media platforms).
For a good while CNN's coverage of Boston consisted of false leads, idle conjecture or stupefied filler, later provoking this absolute drubbing from Jon Stewart. The networks in general saw their thunder stolen by Twitter, and Reddit and 4Chan mounted their own crowdsourced “investigations“. People were tracked down, identified and terrorized through their Facebook pages. A Saudi student, injured by and running away from the blast, was apprehended by a “citizen” and declared virtually guilty by the New York Post and Fox News. An already-missing student fingered by Reddit's “Redditors” – themselves anonymous – fared better only because he had committed suicide in the Providence River sometime prior to the Marathon itself. For its part, the New York Post's pièce de résistance of yellow journalism included a photo allegedly lifted from one of the Reddit pages.
Finally, the Tsarnaev brothers were identified by the FBI not through any state-owned surveillance apparatus but from footage captured by a Lord & Taylor department store's security cameras. It's worth noting that there are only 60 CCTV cameras in Boston that are controlled by the police – for now. It was an army of Little Brothers that did the job instead, with varying degrees of effectiveness, but, it must be emphasized, with no lack of enthusiasm.
But things got even messier. As the manhunt progressed, NPR and many others began retweeting the Boston Police Scanner, to the point where the Boston Police Department politely asked them to stop, in fear of giving away tactical positions. For their part, the BPD were afraid that they had a real psychopath on their hands, since they had retweeted sentiments such as “I will kill you all as you killed my brother” from what turned out to be a fake Twitter account (which, in a bizarre act of faux posterity remains up).
How do we make sense of this mess? As a way forward, I cite James Gleick's clear-headed commentary in New York Magazine, who in turn references David Foster Wallace. If there ever was a keen observer of our culture, it was Wallace. In his guest editor's introduction to The Best American Essays 2007, he intimates a society immersed in an ever-accelerating
…rate of consumption which tends to level everything out into an undifferentiated mass of high-quality description and trenchant reflection that becomes both numbing and euphoric, a kind of Total Noise that's also the sound of our U.S. culture right now, a culture and volume of info and spin and rhetoric and context that I know I'm not alone in finding too much to even absorb, much less to try to make sense of or organize into any kind of triage of saliency or value. Such basic absorption, organization, and triage used to be what was required of an educated adult, a.k.a. an informed citizen—at least that's what I got taught. Suffice it here to say that the requirements now seem different.
Total Noise is a total nightmare for Wallace, who was the apotheosis of the close reader. It is represents the sheer impossibility of being able to judge the value of anything, of no longer being able to understand what difference any difference might ultimately make. The limitation of Wallace's perspective is that it doesn't take into account the purposive nature of all that noise. It may, in the aggregate, be noise, but every squawk was created for a reason. Every speck of noise was shot off into the ether of cyberspace on the tiny rocket engine of someone's agenda. Some of these reasons, such as the installation of the Lord & Taylor security camera, were incidental, and others, such as the fake Tsarnaev account, channeled the trickster.
Tricksters are not fools. Both may be Jungian archetypes, but let us be clear on the difference. As Helen Lock writes:
The trickster, however, is not playing. He is not confined to his own sphere of activity, “playing the fool,” he is a trickster in the world at large. He actually is immoral (or at least amoral) and blasphemous and rebellious, and his interest in entering the societal game is not to provide the safety-valve that makes it tolerable, but to question, manipulate, and disrupt its rules. He is the consummate mover of goalposts, constantly redrawing the boundaries of the possible. In fact, the trickster suggests, says Hyde, “a method by which a stranger or underling can enter the game, change its rules, and win a piece of the action” (204). Unlike the fool, the trickster aims to change the rules of the “real” world; he is the lowly outsider who is at the same time powerful enough to transform and reconstitute the inside, or indeed to obliterate the existence of “sides.” …The trickster pushes the limits of the unorthodox in order to transform reality—and as such is distinct from, in many respects the opposite of, the fool.
In this sense, trickster is present in the creators of fake Twitter accounts, and, no matter how well-intentioned, the witch-hunters of Reddit. And, at the same stroke, the Tsarnaevs themselves squarely occupy this role. They may have not thought through their attack, or rather its aftermath, but they were not, in the Jungian sense, fools. Look at what, all together, they have wrought. Gleick, in his commentary, “found the ecosystem of information in a strange and unstable state: Twitter on the rise, cable TV in disarray, Internet vigilantes bleeding into the F.B.I.'s staggeringly complex (and triumphant) crash program of forensic video analysis. If there ever was a dividing line between cyberspace and what we used to call ‘the real world,' it vanished last week.”
Of course, the Tsarnaevs' goal was not to rewrite any information landscape but to kill and maim as many people as possible. But as far as individual bits and pieces go, there is very little that is unprecedented. About ten years ago, I was empaneled on grand jury here in New York City, and one of the indictments we handed down was based on incidental security camera footage – exactly the same sort that proved to be the Tsarnaev brothers' undoing. Regarding the thin membrane separating cyberspace from reality, connoisseurs of the Evil Bert meme will recall how Bert wound up alongside Osama bin Laden on posters handed out at a 2001 demonstration in Bangladesh. And Twitter accounts updated by real fugitives while on the run, such as software entrepreneur and accused murderer John McAfee, quickly spawn their own fake counterparts.
Nevertheless, if there is anything new to be gleaned from this, it is the speed with which it is happening. Boston perhaps set a new record for the sheer amount of information generated, of whatever quality. And the media is indeed indispensable to anyone willing to set off a pressure cooker full of nails. As anthropologist Scott Atran writes in Foreign Policy, “their threat can only match their ambitions if fueled way beyond actual strength. And publicity is the oxygen that fires modern terrorism…Terrorists are directly responsible for violent acts, but only indirectly for the reaction that follows… the media is increasingly less a public service devoted to this task than a competitive business that believes it best succeeds through sensation, which violence privileges.”
But even this is a mischaracterization of the kind of media landscape that has established itself. When has media ever solely, or even primarily, been about public service? And now, when barriers to entry to participating in – or simply obfuscating – the media landscape have been all but removed, what phenomena will we witness when the next terrorist attack visits our shores?
Here, then, is a proposed scenario. On the occasion of the next bombing, likely at a public event, there will be some, as-yet undefined critical mass of Google Glass users present (sorry, critics, it's coming), along with whatever competitor products have been released in the meantime. Uploading video and audio in realtime, they will be guided by members of Reddit, InfoWars, Anonymous or some similar happy-go-lucky vigilante network posing as a social media community. They will likely already have personal drones in the air at the event (no need to order online – the availability of personal drones is demonstrated by the accompanying photo, which was taken today at the Barnes and Noble on 86th and Broadway). A manhunt fueled by hashtags, hacked DMV databases, or disabled smart-city traffic light systems will take place. Moving quickly enough, it may outrun not just the media but law enforcement itself. Digitally distributed vigilantism will become the story itself. At worst, we will see the world's first social media-sponsored lynching. (See Patrick Farley's unfinished web-based graphic novel “Spiders,” begun around 2002, for a possible future war created by such nicely messy, embryonic growth).
None of these things might come to pass. It is far likelier that what will actually transpire will be stranger still, and much more ambiguous. But one thing is certain: we have come a long way from fearing a society of command-and-control repression (à la Orwell or the conspiracy theorists), or a society of normalized self-policing, which is what Roderick and Foucault envisioned. As a result of our desire to live in a world of which we can make sense, we have created one in which the trickster is ascendant. And the trickster does not play sides.