The Boston Bombings and the “Total Noise” of the Internet

James Gleick, writing about the coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing, noted that we have reached a turning point in our embrace of new media: “We’re starting to sense what may happen when everything is seen and everyone is connected. Bits of intelligence amid the din,” he summed up, “and new forms of banality.”

Between the tsunami of tweets, the millions of photos, the panicky cell phone messages, full-time TV coverage, and a flock of journalists competing to scoop each other, how could anyone figure out what was actually happening? And indeed the established media, including CNN, made a number of very big mistakes, including claiming that arrests had been made.

Gleick continued: “The Boston bombings, shootings, car chase, and manhunt 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.”

He concluded that the coverage amounted to “total noise,” borrowing a phrase from David Foster Wallace, so much noise that the signal can no longer be discerned. But in this case much of the noise was generated by increasingly desperate attempts to find the signal. (See, New York Magazine, “Total Noise,” Only Louder.)

This must be a particular problem for journalists, such as Gleick, distracted and led astray by all the information, as were some local police. But it did turn out that those in charge of the investigation were able to mine the data and hone in on the remaining suspect. Moreover, it looks like they were able to crowd source significant additional data. In the end, their staggeringly complex program was “triumphant,” as Gleick concedes.

One conclusion: In the new age of big data, we may be overwhelmed by information, but, on the other hand, it is no longer possible for suspects to get lost in the crowd. To be sure, Gleick has a point. We are subject to information overload, and we may well get lost in the data ourselves. It is confusing and problematic and banal, and it easily leads to manipulation and deceit. If everyone is speaking all the time, how can we tell what’s useful or true?

But there is another conclusion, as Timothy Egan put it in The New York Times: “Tireless culling of video images, apt use of tips and technology, and quick action by a fleet of cops showed both the risk and the range of good police work.” He cites several examples of how sloppy police work under pressure from tabloid journalists have led to egregious mistakes, most notable the “Central Park Five,” unjustly convicted of rape. (See, “Good Cops, Bad Cops.”)

Yes, there is a problem of endless chatter when people feel obliged to speak or tweet when they have nothing to say but can’t bear feeling left out. It is easy to be confused and jump to wrong conclusions. But so far it does not seem we have slipped over the edge where no one can think anymore amid the ambient noise.