When great minds get organized, and especially when they connect with each other, there is no limit to what can emerge. In addition, it seems the result can go in either direction. I sometimes think we now have arrived at a brave and extreme new juncture with a Dickensian twist. Not unlike other profound moments in history that gave rise to utopian visions and dystopian fears, we are simultaneously living the best of times and the worst of times. Many predict, much to the delight of optimists and pessimists alike, that things are going to get better and better in terms of technology, information, invention, creation, discovery, and the ability of the entire world to share these with each other. But the corollary is also envisioned—to the dismay of just about everyone—that times will get even worse. What could be in store but more war, malignant conflict, powerful forces bending the less powerful to their will, and the resulting backlash of resistance and terror, all with no end in sight?
My bets are in both camps: we're in for the best and the worst for a good long while. I'm not in favor of the pendulum stopping until it comes to rest in the middle. If it gets artificially hung up on either side, we're still in trouble.
And then, there's the Information Superhighway, also known as the Internet, cyberspace, the Web, World Wide Web, W3, the Net, the Infobahn, computer network or simply, online. There can be no doubt that by whatever name you want to call it, the digital medium offers the best and the worst and everything in between. It's a smorgasbord, the new Alice's Restaurant. You can get anything you want. Whoever wants to watch the world unfolding as it should—like staring at the sun during a partial eclipse—is welcome to do so on a 24/7 basis.
For newsjunkies and players following the War on Terror and its doppelganger, the Terror of War, last week's FRONTLINE report, "Bush's War," is a don't-miss. I was unable to watch the original broadcasts March 24 and 25. Once upon a time if you missed such a broadcast, you were sentenced to the dark dungeon of ignorance forever, and but for a rebroadcast months later, you might never fill in the void of that particular information. Why I am a TiVo/DVR holdout, I don't know, but so far I do not accumulate unwatched programs for later viewing on my TV. However, because of the Internet, I just hopped onto the Information Highway and cruised through the entire show at my convenience, replaying important passages and experiencing interruption only of my own volition.
"Bush's War" represents the most comprehensive investigative piece I've seen to date on the eclipse of the last seven years. The program appears in 26 chapters averaging around 10 minutes apiece. Because of the extras provided, viewing the show online seems a superior experience to the television broadcast even though you miss the feeling of community while watching concurrently with millions of other viewers. Extras include over 400 extended interviews drawn from FRONTLINE reporting since 9/11 and a 175-clip annotated video timeline starting in the 1980s. "Bush's War" is an eyes-wide-open, sometimes scathing review of the reaction to 9/11 and ensuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, much of which reflects what has to be the worst of times. But it is the best of times in the sense that an illuminating report such as this is available at all times for viewing by anyone who can get online and wants to stare at the sun, witness the eclipse. Click on the image above to view and explore FRONTLINE and "Bush's War."
Something else possible only in cyberspace is the complement and companion to citizen journalism—citizen editorial. Opinion that used to be published in print as "letters to the editor" in isolated, one-time-only, linear time has now exploded into a new online universe of opinion and commentary from a population that bars none. This venue includes amateurs, professionals, and newsjunkies as well as ordinary people who are neither journalists nor editorial columnists by profession. These citizen editors—bloggers—have an exponential capacity to affect the status quo by synthesizing discrete bits of observation, information, and opinion.
Bloggers can create an expanded portrait of accumulated evidence and analysis that reflects past and present, and can very well change the future as never before. What used to be a two-dimensional, linear-based, time-consuming and painstakingly researched timeline of facts can now emerge almost instantaneously via multiple inputs, all hyperlinked at the speed of light throughout the blogosphere. Moreover, because online information doesn't disappear quickly into the past like today's news broadcast, yesterday's newspaper or last month's magazine, content persists in real time. As information, analysis and opinion are compressed in time, memes explode and are available to everyone, everywhere, anytime, all of the time. And they grow, sometimes into monsters; suddenly, we get information on super-steroids. What we do with it is up to us. Of course, there is a war going on about cyberspace too.
Another in-depth report from FRONTLINE, "News War," points out how The New York Times, Dan Rather and CBS, Senator Trent Lott and Congressman Mark Foley, for instance, were in effect censured, even taken down, by citizens exercising their right to post observations, tidbits and opinion, followed by facts to support them. Bloggers can create a new database of evidence and analysis that in past times could, would, maybe should never have happened. Because of a synthesis of input from influential experts, analysis, compression of information in time, and the cumulative effect of relentless demand, public pressure from the blogosphere has enormous potential to effect change in a way we have only begun to experience. "News War" covers much more than the blogosphere. If you missed the broadcast in February, it's well worth the time to view it online. Enter FRONTLINE's sweeping take on the state of journalism by clicking the title page.
On the heels of my long date with FRONTLINE came one of the most delightful links I've received lately over e-mail, sent to me by our copy editor Cecilia White, who also edits The Economist. Here's the bit: the award-winning Washington, D.C., news publication "The Chronicle of Higher Education" asked readers to sketch their own visions for the George W. Bush Presidential Library, future monument and depository of information that will follow our 43rd president's tenure in the executive office. In the Back-of-the-Envelope Design Contest, The Chronicle's request stimulated readers to flights of monumental imagination in a great and fun battle of visual creativity. Architects and non-architects alike were instructed to sketch their designs on an envelope, and though the votes are already cast, you can view the rankings and winner of the war. Click on either of the two examples to see more fanciful designs and read about the contest. There is also a short video with Chronicle reporter Scott Carlson, who with tongue firmly in cheek tells more about the submissions. This sort of whimsical play found in a serious publication represents, for me at least, some of the best of the best of times.
For the foreseeable future, I imagine we will flip-flop like particles and waves between the best of the best and the worst of the worst, and we will have a large dose of everything in between. For those of us who want to stare unblinkingly at the sun in eclipse, there's plenty of blinding information out there even in the shadow of profound secrecy. There are also outrageous fabrications, inspiration and opportunity, calls to compassion, humanitarianism and creativity, and much, much hilarity. Information gone Goliath.
There's nothing fair and balanced about the Internet. It's a freedom that belongs to everyone, but you still have to decide. Actually, not only do you have to decide, but also you have to decide what's worth deciding. We might most wisely make our decisions based on which way lies madness. Or joy. On a daily basis. Whatever the case, it's a freedom definitely worth fighting for.