Last weekend, in a remarkable coincidence, the Web carried the latest chapters of the oldest and newest stories in the world. In the process, it added a chapter to the history of technology as well.
The newest story, of course, was the vote in Iraq. I, like most of you, spent much of Sunday simultaneously watching cable TV and surfing the Web to track the unfolding drama of the brave Iraqi people as they made their way to their polling places. Given the time differences out here in Silicon Valley, for me that meant staying up late Saturday night to watch the polling places open, then getting up in the morning and quickly firing up the computer and TV to track the last few hours of the voting, then coming in at lunchtime from a brilliant early spring day to watch the far-off ululations and celebrations in the Iraqi night.
The images were so uplifting, and so heroic, that it was impossible not to be moved. After more than two centuries of enjoying its blessings, we tend to be jaded about the fundamental importance of human freedom. We tend to see the Dark Night of Fascism descending upon America every time there's talk of monitoring e-mails or putting a sales tax on e-purchases. But this was the real deal in Baghdad, Mosul and Tikrit.
And watching those growing numbers of everyday citizens filling the streets and marching determinedly toward the polls, then afterward waving their blue fingers in triumph at real Fascists, was to be reminded just how fragile, and how valuable, freedom really is. And how easily free people forget how blessed they are.
One thing I noticed as the day went on was how much my experience of the news has changed in the course of the last 30 years. When I was a little kid, a story like this would have unfolded over the course of about two weeks. There would have been a few small stories on the radio and the evening news. Huntley and Brinkley might have carried a two minute story on the vote, complete with a grainy image of strange and foreign people in dark robes standing in line, someone holding up a finger for no obvious reason, and a couple seconds of people dancing. The voice-over would have included some official U.S. government remark expressing satisfaction with the process.
This would have been followed the next day by a couple news stories in the local newspaper, and perhaps a commentary on "The Meaning of It All" by Walter Lipmann on the editorial page, along with a grainy AP or UPI photo.
Finally, two weeks later, Life magazine would carry two or three pages of stunning photos, selected as much for their visual values as their news content. And Time and Newsweek would devote a medium-sized article to anecdotes about the vote, as well as to preliminary results. If you wanted anything more than that, you had to subscribe to Foreign Affairs or listen to the BBC on the shortwave radio. Nobody in my neighborhood did either.