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September 2011

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Terror and the Web Part 4

- Ten years after 9/11

<< Terror and the Web Part 1 - September 2001
<< Terror and the Web Part 2 - December 2001
<< Terror and the Web Part 3 - September 2002

September 7th 2011

Where were you when you found out about the 9/11 attacks? It's a pertinent question nearly 10 years on from the events of 9/11. Like many other people, I was in an office trying to get news sites - any news site - to load properly and tell me what was going on. In the end, the early twenty-first technology failed to do the job and we ended up trying to find TV sets and radios to see what was happening in New York and Washington on that fateful day.

Things have change a lot since then - but some things haven't. This article does not try to address ten years of technological change though, it is merely a reflection of then and now.

One: the collapsing web

Almost every single news site collapsed under the massive upsurge in traffic on 9/11. The BBC, CNN and just about every major international news source simply stopped working altogether. Streaming media was in its infancy then, and it didn't stand a chance. News providers struggled to reconfigure their sites to reduce load, and eventually mainstream news sites came back online.

The web looked very different then, as this archive reveals, and the technology underpinning the web was primitive by today's standards. Now we have load balancing, clouds, mirror sites and the like.. so surely it could never happen again? It turns out that the web is not as resilient as you think, and when Norway was hit by terror attacks in 2011 almost all Norwegian news sites collapsed in exactly the same way as global sites collapsed on 9/11.

But it wasn't just news sites that couldn't cope. The huge demands placed on the internet had a knock-on effect on other traffic too, many ISPs struggled to keep up with user demand and even basic tools such as email suffered a severe slow down. And WTC was more than just an office block - a significant amount of internet infrastructure routed through the building, leading to significant data tranmission problems all along the East Coast.

Two: television and radio

Back in 2001, streaming media on the internet was a hit-and-miss affair at the best of times. The fallback was to watch it on TV, but that wasn't as simple as you might think. Assuming that you were in an office trying to keep up with the events of 9/11, the best was of doing it would be to turn on a television set. These were much more common in offices 10 years ago than now, often attached to VCRs for presentations and long since replaced by projectors and big flat panel monitors. The trouble then was that most TVs lacked an antenna, so people had to improvise with whatever bits of wire they could find to get a signal. The results were not impressive. Radios worked better, but they were pretty uncommon in a work environment even then, and of course you couldn't see what was going on.

Ten years on and you would be hard pressed to find a TV set in most modern offices. In many areas digital TV has completely replaced analogue TV, so it would be pointless trying to rig up an old set anyway. Conversely, FM radios are now pretty common in mobile phones, but that's hardly a communal experience. In many ways we are more reliant on the internet for news than ever before, and if a disaster on the scale of 9/11 happened again, would we be able to cope.

One twist was that the World Trade Center in New York was also the main TV and radio transmission base for a great deal of the city. When the WTC collapsed, New Yorkers were left in the dark as to what was going on in their own city. If you've ever seen the movie Cloverfield (also set in New York) then you might just understand what it must have been like in the city at the time, with massive destruction happening but no way of getting the full picture of unfolding events.

Three: no Twitter or YouTube

These days revolutions are relayed on Twitter and are document on YouTube. Back in 2001 neither service existed. But is that a good or bad thing?

Despite the damage inflicted on the World Trade Center and the inevitable overloading of mobile phone networks that happens after a major disaster, we know that many people trapped in the WTC managed to communicate with loved ones or left chilling and deeply sad messages on answering machines. In these days of instant tweets and direct video uploads from phones to YouTube and other services, it would be likely that we would have a huge amount more first hand accounts.. assuming that mobile phone and computer networks had not collapsed completely. But would that be better? I personally think it would be too much for any observer to bear.

But something unusual happened on 9/11 when it came to sharing information and even eyewitness reports. Because news sites were down, just about any online community at all became a hub for sharing information. Slashdot still carries it's 9/11 news article with the comments intact, even the Paint Shop Pro Usenet group became a news source of sorts. Probably these days it would be a Facebook page or a Twitter hashtag instead.

What if it happened today?

What if these attacks happened today? Our increasing reliance on the web for news and the changing tides of technology mean that we could be seriously out of touch if an incident of this scale ever happened again. How could you cope with no web and no TV? If the power went out, do you have a battery powered radio? Can you pick up anything other than FM in case your local radio stations go out? Despite a decade of terrorist attacks following 9/11, in some ways we seem more vulnerable than ever before.

<< Terror and the Web Part 1 - September 2001
<< Terror and the Web Part 2 - December 2001
<< Terror and the Web Part 3 - September 2002





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