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December 19, 2014

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Getting lost in cyberspace

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When James Gleick was my editor on the City Desk of The New York Times, he would often stare into space.

This was no mere daydreaming. Every time he stared, a clever idea bloomed. After leaving the Times, he founded one of the first Internet service providers. He made chaos theory so celebrated it inspired Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia.” He wrote science and technology books acclaimed for making the theoretical sexy, including “The Information,” a history from cuneiforms to coding about the thing we want most and have the most of, the thing that defines us, and the thing that brings pleasure and predicament in equal measure.

Everybody is continuously connected to everybody else on Twitter, on Facebook, on Instagram, on Reddit, emailing, texting, faster and faster, with the flood of information jeopardizing meaning. Everybody’s talking at once in a hypnotic, hyper din: the cocktail party from hell.

Jim is at work now on a book about the history of time travel, though he doesn’t believe in it. (Take that, H.G. Wells and Doctor Who.)

I was taken with a piece he wrote this week for New York magazine about how the Boston Marathon bombings exposed a new phase in our experience of what David Foster Wallace called Total Noise: “the tsunami of available fact, context and perspective.”

The unfolding terror, Jim wrote, “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.” Crowdsourcing quickly turned into witchhunting, he noted, and bits of intelligence surfaced amid “new forms of banality.”

Jim asserted that embarrassing instances of jumping the gun on arrest bulletins at CNN and Fox News, and airwaves filled with hollow, incessant chatter and pseudoinformation, showed that “continuous real-time broadcast news is a failed experiment.”

Roger Ailes may not be quaking in his loafers. But has the long-ingrained automatic impulse to turn on the TV when news happens run its course?

I asked Jim to elaborate over coffee.

“The TV audience used to be isolated and passive,” he said. “Now everybody is tweeting and texting to everybody else, and sometimes the viewers know more than the hapless microphone-wielding faces on TV.

“During the drama of the Boston manhunt and car chase, it never occurred to me to turn on the TV. The screen I needed was on my iPhone, where I followed the tweets of newspaper reporters running through the streets of Boston and Cambridge residents listening to gunfire in real-time. The Internet is messy, pointillist, noisy, often wrong. But if you had a visceral need for instantaneity, TV couldn’t compete.

“Reporters doing TV news in real-time are an oxymoron: You can’t gather news and present it at the same time. Part of newsgathering is the gathering part.

“People on Twitter were crowing about how superior Twitter is to old media. What they meant was, ‘See, we’re faster than TV.’ And I’m there. But I’m also still an old-media guy because the information that matters sometimes comes the next day or the next month, when there is time to digest and interpret. The best reporting in Boston last week was not in cyberspace. It was in the two great daily newspapers that were on the scene, The Boston Globe and The Times.

“The battle lines are being drawn between the crowds and the experts. The crowds are fast and can be smart, but sometimes they’re horribly wrong, like the Internet vigilantes on Reddit who thought they could do better than the FBI in looking at photographs and exposing the guilty. But crowdsourcing was also part of the newsgathering. In a very real way, we had eyes and ears everywhere.”

I asked him about the episode Tuesday, when Syrian hackers took over the Associated Press’ Twitter account and falsely reported that there had been two explosions at the White House and that the president was injured — a hoax that sent the Dow into a tailspin for three minutes and wiped out $136 billion from the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index.

“There’s no perfect trust in cyberspace,” Jim said. “There are not only millions of voices but millions of masks. You don’t know who’s who. There was a real Twitter account for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, but, instantly, there was a fake Twitter account for him, too.

“We have all these new channels and tools to understand the world as it happens, but there’s no reliable algorithm for sorting through the morass. It used to be to read the morning paper on the way to work and read the evening paper on the way home. Now we have to invent a new personal methodology every day. And if we’re waiting for things to settle down and become simple, that’s never going to happen.”

And then poor Jim, as confused as the rest of us, stared into space.

Maureen Dowd is a columnist for The New York Times.

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