Last week I struggled to convert one type of music file (my original content, not someone else’s) into another type of music file on my new computer, which has some fantastic features that I may never learn how to use. At a certain point, it appeared the file had been created or copied. But the suffix wasn’t right, it wouldn’t open in the media player to play… you get the idea. I had a thing, I could see it; it looked like the thing I wanted… and then the file was empty.
We’re getting into more and more of these sorts of situations with each passing day of unfettered reaching and exchanging with our digital communication devices. And yet regardless of how often we’re annoyed with digital material we can’t manipulate to our total satisfaction (“Could you re- send your 700 page novel as a PDF… thanks!”) none of those technical problems can give us a bigger headache than the ones generated by the device users: Us.
Two events last week brought into tight focus the layers of issues involved when lightning-fast content distribution meets human frailty and culpability. The events were different from each other, yet they shared one attribute: It would have been so great if word hadn’t gotten out quite so quickly. You know, all that super-speed we enjoy now in the transmission of information that often turns out to be hokum.
Last Tuesday it was reported that the Secret Service was investigating the hacking of the Twitter account at Fox News. Fox’s Twitter account appeared to issue updates claiming that President Obama had been assassinated. It’s the Secret Service’s job to protect the President; hence the heavy reaction to what might be viewed as a deeply unsettling prank. Still, you’d want to know that a manipulation of reality of that sort was being thoroughly examined. Imagine those responsible spreading the Twitter stunt over several or even many information platforms. Even Fox News called the phony tweets “malicious” and “false, “ although some will say that accurately describes their daily TV output.
You’d like to think that people would immediately turn to an alternative information source other than Twitter when something of this nature is being claimed. You want to believe that Twitter has built-in credibility problems at such a level that nothing ever amounting to real panic could be generated off just its feeds alone. But we’re not quite functioning inside a credibility ecosystem anymore. Mainstream media will now often report what some other platform is “reporting,” rather than send their own reporter out to see if, you know, the President has been shot. If an item is tasty enough, it goes forward on the pure momentum of its sizzling flavor before anyone has really checked on things.
Which somewhat haphazardly gets us to the second event last week, which was the revelation that the alleged victim in the New York hotel room in which Dominique Strauss-Kahn and his DNA did something has been revealed to have been repeatedly lying. As reported by Maureen Dowd in the New York Times the woman lied that her husband died of torture by police in Guinea. She lied that she was gang-raped there. She apparently claimed a friend’s child as her own to get a tax break. She changed the sequence of events following the attack by Strauss-Kahn. By the time you read this the “case” my have fallen apart, even though something did happen in that hotel room and it doesn’t scream “leadership” on the part of the chief of the International Monetary Fund.
Mr. Strauss-Kahn was positioned to run for president of France before news broke of the alleged assault and the story virtually blasted off like a rocket circling the world. Satellites in space, mobile communication devices, digital transmission… all worked in sync to make sure this red hot potato of a sexy sex news story was out there as quickly as possible. The same technology colluded to create an overnight cottage industry of feature pieces in print and video exploring the morality and compulsions of powerful men who cheat or create sexual scandal. Mr. Strauss-Kahn wasn’t just a lusty Frenchman or a potential rapist; he was part of a cabal of men with power who get what they want sexually. Why oh why do we allow that? Match, fire, gasoline. Uh, wait a minute. Hold up. We’re getting a new angle on this from the victim.
Both the Fox Twitter feeds and the Strauss-Kahn accusations could have been better handled and, if you will, safety-checked for our protection by any filter of additional time. Rather than information catapulted into the media dome without validation, any mention of harm befalling our President might have simply been confirmed somehow before spilling into Twitter. It’s a little more difficult to imagine that the Strauss-Kahn affair would have been better investigated before being pumped into our pipes and played at high volume.
When those listening to Orson Welles’ 1938 radio broadcast “War of the Worlds” started packing their suitcases to flee the Martians, they had been told numerous times during the show by an announcer with a calming voice that it was just that… a radio show. Today, we may be required to be our own calming voice. We unfortunately can’t afford to be cynical about any sudden report of an attack because now we live in those times, too. Yet as incredible as some moments of 21st century life have been, we can still give ourselves a minute to always consider the source of information. Maybe the machine has simply generated an empty file, albeit with a particularly tantalizing label on the outside. And then, because we’re hungry, delivered it to us in 30 minutes or less.