“Total Noise,” Only Louder

The Boston manhunt and the limited wisdom of crowd-sourcing.

  1. Kids used to ask each other: If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears, does it make a sound? Now there’s a microphone in every tree and a loudspeaker on every branch, not to mention the video cameras, and we’ve entered the condition that David Foster Wallace called Total Noise: “the tsunami of available fact, context, and perspective.”

    This week was a watershed for Total Noise. When terrible things happen, people naturally reach out for information, which used to mean turning on the television. The rewards (and I use the word in its Pavlovian sense) can be visceral and immediate, if you want to see more bombs explode or towers fall, and plenty of us do. But others are learning not to do that.

    The Boston bombings, shootings, car chase, and manhunt found the ecosystem of information in a strange and unstable state: Twitter on the rise, cable TV in disarray, Internet vigilantes bleeding into the FBI’s staggeringly complex (and triumphant) crash program of forensic video analysis. If there ever was a dividing line between cyberspace and what we used to call the “real world,” it vanished last week.

    Microblogging and social media intruded sharply upon the chain of events. The @CambridgePolice, having tweeted SUSPICIOUS PACKAGE reports through Thursday night and Friday morning, stopped tweeting in case the 19-year-old fugitive Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was glued to his cell phone like everyone else (“monitoring police response via social media”). And why wouldn’t he be? The Internet ...

Originally published in New York, April 2013