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, or to a lesser degree, 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).

But all have inched us ever-closer to what was always the unspoken, Platonic ideal of news: complete understanding of what is going on someplace else even as it is occurring. News so instantaneous that, somehow, it actually gives us a fleeting glimpse of the future.

In other words, the Eye of God.

The outbreak of the Iraq War found us at the nexus of this gnawing desire for real-time news and television's willingness to pour money and reporters into the salient to deliver it.

The result for me, and I suspect millions of other Americans, was like a long, disorienting Info Drunk. Being on the Left Coast had its added wrinkle: dawn in Baghdad was midnight in California — which meant that at 2 a.m. I was still sitting in my home office, at the keyboard pinging my way from one site to another — often revisiting a posting site three or four times per minute to look at any new listings while flicking my eyes to the plasma screen next to the computer monitor and punching the remote across a half-dozen network and cable news channels in search of the tiniest morsel of new information. What does Jennings say? Is that tracer fire on MSNBC? What does James Lileks think? I got to know that damn minaret across the square from the fixed camera in Baghdad better than I did the façade of my neighbor's house across the street.

I quickly found myself in a perpetual search for Special News Bulletins, or best of all, live footage beaming up from the front. If it was pixelated, it was perfect. Warfare as a giant Chuck Close painting. I actually stared intently for 10 minutes at an image of Ollie North that was little more than a roiling black void. Once, in the early morning hours, I realized I was flinching at a live firefight, expecting to take a bullet at any moment.

I had become a Feed Freak with a serious jones for breaking news.

Now It’s Back to Normal

Of course, there were also diversions, the USO shows for the new Millennium: that saturnalian parade of desert foxes and infobabes who lived only to service my news habit.

One day, trapped in my pickup truck delivering kids to school, I found myself reduced to the least important news source at such times: radio. Luckily, my satellite radio picks up ABC Talk and Fox News.

On the latter I heard Jennifer Eccleston give a report that was so incoherent and full of malapropisms (the Norm Crosby of Kuwait) that I realized I'd watched her a dozen times on TV and never actually listened to a word she said — what with those windblown blonde tresses and the lip gloss she looks like a Varsity cheerleader for Armageddon High, and will no doubt soon be the Homecoming Homecoming Queen. And, moreover, I didn't care. Just look earnest and give me another grainy live feed, baby.

And now it's over, the war itself having been fought at a high-tech real-time pace. We freaks now find ourselves in the endless dreary afterwards. Over the last few days I've turned on the news, but it's hard to care. I've surfed the Web sites, but they've reverted to their old partisan crabbiness. I've walked out of the bar in that terrible white light of dawn and duty. Little League and Microsoft Word. And, of course, Harry Potter.

But now that I've tasted the pure stuff, there is no going back. I'll bet that you, dear reader, feel the same.

Sure, it's only going to get worse. Moore's Law, already bringing us chip-level cameras and broadband satellite uplinks, guarantees that the next time the information feeds will be infinitely richer and thicker. Next time, there'll be 10,000 cameras, shooting from everywhere and from every angle, a million blogs, and so many different opinions and rumors flying around the Net that they will cancel each other out even and as they crush us under their collective weight. We will all be force-fed Feed Freaks.

And you know what? I think it's great. I've got my cable modem and the best caffeine money can buy. Bring it on…

Michael S. Malone, once called “the Boswell of Silicon Valley,” most recently was editor-at-large of Forbes ASAP magazine. His work as the nation’s first daily high-tech reporter at the San Jose Mercury-News sparked the writing of his critically acclaimed The Big Score: The Billion Dollar Story of Silicon Valley, which went on to become a public TV series. He has written several other highly praised business books and a novel about Silicon Valley, where he was raised. For more, go to