Light Speed
May 2008

by Ron Steinman

Today, because of its speed, the Internet, as radio once did, has within it the power to change lives and peoples' destiny. Repressive governments seem powerless to stop access to the Web. The draw for the young is freedom; simple enough on the surface, but something we often take for granted in the United States because our current leaders believe it is easy to attain by just thinking it possible.

Recently the lords of China were sitting fat and happy in Beijing at an important meeting where the country's leaders were in attendance. Before anyone knew what was happening, demonstrations started in Tibet. Soon the story in words and pictures went flying around the world faster than anyone anticipated. There was no escape from reality. There was no way to hide the uprising. Using force, China quieted the demonstrations in Tibet. However, China could do nothing about demonstrations against its policies elsewhere. Soon China and the Olympic Committee discovered there was no way to hide the path of the Olympic torch from demonstrators as it made its way through San Francisco. To track the path of the torch, protesters communicated by text message. All anyone needed was a cell phone and a set of fast thumbs to navigate the keys. It was not necessary to make a phone call. Those who were protesting against the torch knew its whereabouts every step of its rude path through the city. Talk about speed!

In China, the government controls how people use the Internet. The government monitors those who attempt to use the Web to view the wider world. Despite intensive scrutinizing and censorship, there is an underground, though it is difficult to tell how big or how active. The underground is young, made up of people who want information to flow freely. These new media partisans go online as frequently as they can even though China's authoritarian government suppresses access beyond the real and virtual Great Wall. In China's history, this is nothing new. China's ideological suppression dates back hundreds of years. Ideas from the past about governance and power still dominate life in The Kingdom of Heaven.

Look again at the recent street battles in Tibet. The world sees how Chinese authorities cut off institutional access, meaning foreign media, to news from that beleaguered region. Though this access changed to a degree and some foreign journalists were able to enter Tibet, they are still under the scrutiny of official minders. Not surprisingly, video and still photos, some made by travelers present during the recent riots, made their way out of the mountainous country to appear in cyberspace. China originally chose to show its official images on CCTV, the government TV network. Should we expect anything less when the Olympics come to China? A true picture of life in China will always be impossible to understand as long as the country has a dictatorial government. It is as if those in power prefer to keep China in the dark behind the walls of The Forbidden City, but that is increasingly impossible to achieve. The Internet is strictly controlled by the government, but as many as 230 million people have access to the Web and some estimates have that number growing by more than 30 percent a year. More than 400 million Chinese own cell phones and almost all of them use text messages. Another 300 million people use instant messaging. Despite reports that most Chinese support the government's crackdown in Tibet, and are using the Internet and modern media to back the government, if I were China's leaders I would be worried. The more people even in favor of the government who delve into the Web, the more its potential will create problems without solutions for China's rulers. Cracks in the monolithic façade of China's face are not good for business or continued domination.

Many years ago I produced and wrote a documentary for NBC News on Guatemala about General Ydigoras Fuentes, the new dictator. He and his army had recently overthrown the previous regime. The general and his supporters said it was leftist and would drag the country into the communist orbit. Of course, many believed Ydigoras only wanted power no matter what he said. There was a strong belief then that he had the support of the CIA because America feared the possibility of another Cuba. The general wanted to make his case and he allowed my team to fly with him on a countrywide tour. While filming in many of the villages we learned that portable radios had become the portal to the outside world. These radios had become a powerful force in people's lives. They were about the size of a paperback book and powered by several batteries. They were both the lifeline and the source of information for many peasants separated by miles of jungle, bad road, deep rivers and mountain ranges. Ydigoras understood the power radios had and used them to justify his cause. After he came to power, he even used the radios to help keep the Guatemalan people in line. But during his regime, those same radios were used by his enemies in fomenting dissent against his entrenched position, though mostly to no avail.

When I wrote my copy for that film, Reuven Frank, the executive producer of "Chet Huntley Reports," asked me if I was being "fanciful." I said, "No, real." After a long discussion, he came around to my way of thinking and allowed the thought to stay in the script. The point I made about getting information through the air remained with me. In later years, particularly during the 1980s and 1990s, an activist Maryknoll priest who worked in Central America told me how the power of the portable radio helped him to get the message of hope to downtrodden peasants wherever he pursued his liberation philosophy.

Radio then served the same purpose as the Internet does today. In newsrooms everywhere before the emergence of the World Wide Web, wire machines that regularly spewed forth copy for editors and writers announced the importance of a story with bells that rang loud and clear in the copy room. Four bells meant an urgent story was moving. Five bells meant a bulletin. Copy boys, and rarely girls, tore the copy off the machine and hurried it to editors and writers in the newsroom. Then depending on the importance of the story everyone kept a watchful eye on developments for the rest of the shift. Now information moves with the speed of light to computers at desks in newsrooms everywhere.

In Cuba, since Fidel Castro stepped down, something seems to be happening beyond what one would expect in that dictatorship. A ban on Internet access in the home has been lifted. There are reports that despite that oppressive regime, some people are able to get online and enter the world of the Web. It is not clear how many people will be able to pay for and take advantage of this privilege. In addition, flash cards secretly carried by travelers into the country have information on them about life outside of Cuba. The other day, Raul Castro opened another door to the world by allowing the sale and distribution of cell phones. The only catch is that Cubans must pay for the service in foreign currency, thus limiting the use of cell phones to perhaps the wealthiest and those in power. Not even the newly retired Fidel Castro and his brother Raul, now in charge, seem able to stop progress into what for most Cubans is an exploration of the unknown. More power to those making forays onto the Internet.

Recently Colombia made a successful raid inside Ecuador against the leftist rebel group FARC, labeled a terrorist organization. Newspaper reports recount how the Colombian army discovered laptops that contained valuable information that in the past might have been on pieces of paper or scrawled by pencil and pen in flimsy notebooks. Today, practically everyone digitally records the bits and pieces of revolution and stores that information in the guts of a laptop computer. I am sure the Colombian army also found cell phones, but because those are so ubiquitous we never hear about their discovery.

Sometimes progress is the enemy and not a friend. In the current political campaign for president, for example, when a candidate says something on the stump, within minutes, Blackberrys humming, conference calls beaming, the other campaign answers. Is this good? I think not. All action becomes reaction. No one takes the time to think a response through but retorts are forthcoming anyway. No one, especially the public, can benefit from thoughtless, rapid reactions made on the run. How could those comebacks be anything but thoughtless? Yes, the comebacks emerge from so-called political war rooms, but I have to wonder how many generals make those decisions instead of privates, sergeants and lieutenants?

Because of light speed in the digital age no one has time to breathe, thus to think clearly. No time to reflect. No time to pause and make a judgment. No time to process the overwhelming amount of information that dominates our lives. But that will not stop the light speeders among us, especially during the political campaign. It only matters how fast something moves onto our computer screens and into our hand-held devices, not what the facts are, not even if any of the thoughts make sense. Once there is a decision to respond, what is new dominates momentarily until the process starts anew. We quickly forget the immediate past. The significance of most everything evaporates. The relentless flow of statements and statistics is all that matters. Sadly, the truth pales in comparison to the speed with which we receive fresh data. Some might argue that is nothing less than life in cyberspace. Get used to it, they say. Sorry. I cannot. We deserve something better and that means we need more time to think. Speed, once a blessing, is now a curse. We need an extra second to make decisions. It should be a requirement. We should fight for that additional time no matter how slight. In our rush to beat the clock it is as if we are sleep deprived, never again to experience a restful moment in lives that are moving at the speed of light in a matrix from which there is no escape.

© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, Executive Editor of The Digital Journalist, is an award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions. Buy Ron Steinman's book: Inside Television's First War.