The Empty Sky … and the Quiet Network

Seven years on, I still look up at the empty sky every so often and remember. And, of course, sometimes I remember deep in my sleep, when the mechanisms of wakefulness and work and schedules aren’t in place to defend me from the worst of the images and the sounds and the smell. I spent much of September 11th, 2001 in my office above Lexington Avenue – and the rest trying to get home to my family.

But many of those memories aren’t of the moment, of the day itself; it’s the aftermath – those lonely months when being part of the world’s great metropolis couldn’t insulate anyone from individual loss and fear. And I’m struck from my vantage point of 2008 just how unconnected those times were in comparison to how I live now – to how we live now.

The network, such as it was, failed. Cell phones connected to nothing. Land lines were iffy. Bandwidth trickled. We watched television – the same video over and over and over again. We listened to the radio. And in New York, we walked a lot. For New Yorkers, this was an in-person event, a vast communal meet-up without the benefits of organizing technology. In truth, we reduced to the lowest needs on Mazlow’s hierarchy of needs for a while. Shelter and safety, that next meal – and the same for everyone we knew, our friends and families.

The sad, horrible social network of short messages appeared on lampposts, and park benches, and impromptu bulletin boards. Names and faces of the missing like ghostly pre-Twitter queries never to be answered – Facebook by printer and Scotch tape – pieces of paper so fresh in the first days, turning to tatters of running ink and blurred head shots in the wind and the rain … and much later … the snow and sleet of the worst New York winter.

Many bloggers were born in those long hours. You could feel the biological need to self-expression, and the parallel desire for more information than the traditional media could provide. You could almost feel the old web creaking, the html bending. I am absolutely convinced that some of the energy and drive to create our socially-empowered web was provided by those horrible events on a gorgeous September morning. Then too, as the demographers tell us, a newer generation came of age – all-too conscious of the stakes and driven by the idea of change, of not going back.

But as I considered writing about the roots of online social activism, I resisted the urge to pin too much on the events of that day – choosing, instead, to talk about the response to Hurricane Katrina four years later as a post-genesis moment. Still I remember those tattered notes all over New York – the last greated unwired social cause network. And I can’t help a glance at the empty sky.