Silicon Insider: Coming Down from War News

Last night I watched Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets on DVD with my kids and I only wanted to change the channel 62 times.

It's not that it's a particularly bad movie — although I'm not real big on the giant-spiders-in-the-woods scene — but rather I'm still coming down from what I can only describe as a real-time bender. In a few days I may even be ready to watch baseball.

I'm sure you know what I'm talking about. Twice in the last two years, important, history-changing events have taken place before our eyes, and we have used the wealth of new technology at hand to track them — often at the cost of sleep, health and brain cells.

If you are like me you have just spent the last three weeks in a blur of obsessive information accumulation, ricocheting from Web to network TV to cable news to radio to newsprint, all in search of tiniest grain of new information or insight about the war in Iraq. And you now feel like the guy stumbling down the airport ramp after a lost drunken Vegas weekend and squinting at the cold morning light of the regular world, with all of its overdue responsibilities to one's family, job and immune system.

As with so many things these days, 9/11 was a turning point. It taught those of us not at the scene of the horror that the news was no longer a passive experience. We Californians were awakened that morning, often with a dawn phone call, with the news that the world had changed forever, that we were at risk for our lives, and that we had no idea what was going on.

Being good technophiles, most of us had already learned the power of the Internet for gathering diverse opinions, factoids, news headlines and rumors. It had been a particularly powerful tool during the Clinton impeachment and the disputed presidential election. But, in our desperation on 9/11 and the days after, we also discovered the power of the Net to capture news almost the instant it occurred.

By the time the first phase of the crisis passed, about a month later, millions of us had become masters of this new art. One hand on the mouse, the other on the remote, we were now adepts at bouncing between cable and network news on the TV screen, and between scores of aggregator, posting, headline, and blog sites on the computer monitor.

The last 20 months have not only increased our skills, but the sources of this information have evolved as well to meet our new demands. Now there are scores of new Web sites, each inhabited by thousands of regular subscribers who see as their mission in life to search out interesting items elsewhere in the media and quickly post them for debate.

Unexpectedly, and despite predictions that the Web would only reinforce existing prejudices, there is a real balance in these postings: visit www.freerepublic.com, or to a lesser degree www.democratunderground.com, and you find numerous articles posted from the opposite end of the political debate, if only to attract jeers.

Perpetual Search for News Bulletins

Meanwhile, television — especially cable news — has undergone its own metamorphosis. Some of these changes have been good (live satellite uplinks from small, portable transmitters); and some of them lousy (the endless news scrawl on the screen bottom, which manage to be both ungrammatical and uninformative at the same time).

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