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.
The Changing face of Media
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.
The Event that Changed News Coverage
All that, of course, changed on Nov. 22, 1963, when President Kennedy was shot. Like everybody else in America, we spent three days reading every special edition of the local paper, listening to the radio, and most of all, hopping back and forth between the three television networks. We had all discovered on our own that each network had its own camera location, and that by twisting the dial back and forth you get slightly different perspectives on the same event. That worked for the Kennedy funeral, but it didn't do much good for breaking news events: I had just stepped out of my front door to go to Sunday school when my father shouted from the living room -- he had just watched Oswald being shot. As there was no replay, I didn't see the footage for years.
International news coverage was even more problematic. I remember watching the live coverage of Churchill's funeral -- the transmission itself a technological wonder for the era -- and having to wait patiently every few minutes as the screen dissolved into snow while the satellite went out of range.
But for all of these limitations, it wasn't lost on us that something profound was going on here -- the lag time between an event and its coverage was shrinking rapidly; even as our control over the access to that coverage was increasing. Looking back, it's easy to see both trajectories in the milestone news events of that era: the NASA space missions, Cronkite's broadcasts from Vietnam, the Watergate hearings, the Bicentennial events, "Nightline's" coverage of the Iranian hostage crisis, the Challenger explosion. Each time, the coverage became more immediate, the coverage more expansive, and our control over access more complete.
As has often been noted, it was the Gulf War that made these changes, and how far we'd come, vividly apparent. Here, suddenly, we were watching that most obscure of human activities, war, presented to us live on multiple channels, both network and cable, 24 hours per day. I remember sitting in front of the television in the early hours of the morning, holding my newborn son on my lap, watching live footage of the advance across the Kuwait desert filmed from a humvee.
Coverage on Sept. 11
Sept. 11 was the next milestone. Like many Americans, I basically spent one long day staring in horror at two screens: one carrying the television feed, through which I remote-controlled my way through a dozen channels every few minutes, desperately searching for any new bit of information -- all while surfing the Net for live observations, wire service feeds, rumors and the consolation of other stunned voices. Without realizing it, my ability to process the news had now outstripped the ability of the ever-growing army of news outlets to provide it. I didn't just want to hear the news anymore, I wanted to inhabit it.
Fast forward to last Sunday. In just 3 ½ years since 9/11 another media revolution had occurred. With the rise of the blogosphere, I suddenly found myself not only watching the news from Iraq as it occurred, but also reading an analysis of that news (and of the coverage itself) at the same time. I could now actually learn the thoughts of the participants in the event, read their raw notes, look at the snapshots they'd taken just minutes before -- words and images unmediated by a copy or photo editor. And there were hundreds of these sources. For the first time in my life, I couldn't keep up with the sheer weight of news coverage. I suspect that was true for everybody -- suggesting that we have just experienced another technological revolution; and we won't even fully identify or understand its implications for years to come. By then, we will be awash in live video blogs; yet another revolution.
It was all so overwhelming that I actually found myself turning away to other parts of the Web for a breather. One of the places I surfed to was a favorite site: Archaelogica News, which, as the name suggests, is an aggregator site on new archaeological discoveries around the world.
There, I stumbled across an entirely different story from Iraq. It seems that a German expedition, using yet another new kind of technology -- magnetography, which can identify anomalous underground features -- appears to have discovered the lost city of Uruk, one of the founding cities of human civilization.
Impressive enough, but what made the hairs on my neck stand up was the added news that the team believes that it may have also found, within Uruk, the tomb of King Gilgamesh.
This is one of those pieces of news that manages to be both of minor importance and of infinite implication. "The Epic of Gilgamesh" is not only one of the greatest stories in the world, it is literally the oldest story in the world. It is so old that it provided the flood story to the authors of the Bible. It was written on clay tablets before the invention of paper. And it is a story so strange and alien to our ears that if you were told that it was discovered on Mars, you wouldn't be very surprised.
And yet, for all of its strangeness, "The Epic of Gilgamesh" is part of our very DNA. Gilgamesh is the first recognizable human being in history; indeed, history begins with him. And now, at last, we may have rediscovered him … even as, literally yards away, his descendents rediscovered their freedom. The technology revolution -- from measurement instruments, to advanced weaponry, to massive data storage, to the Internet -- made this remarkable one-day conjunction of past, present and future possible, just as it enabled me to watch all of this unfold in real-time a half-world away.
It was yet another reminder that the world is still a place of miracles, big and small.
Michael S. Malone, once called “the Boswell of Silicon Valley,” most recently was editor-at-large of Forbes ASAP magazine. He has covered the Silicon Valley and high-tech for more than 20 years, beginning with the San Jose Mercury-News as the nation's first daily high-tech reporter. His articles and editorials have appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The Economist and Fortune, and for two years he was a columnist for The New York Times. He has hosted two national PBS shows: "Malone," a half-hour interview program that ran for nine years, and in 2001, a 16-part interview series called "Betting It All: The Entrepreneurs." Malone is best known as the author of a dozen books. His latest book, a collection of his best newspaper and magazine writings, is called "The Valley of Heart's Delight."
This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.