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Beau Friedlander

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The 5000 Degrees that Killed at Columbine and at the Times

Posted: 04/20/09 05:03 PM ET

"No iPhones." The sign is taped to my kids' bedroom door. It is the best piece of writing I've seen in a while. The message is simple. Putting "Out There" before "Right here" is dangerous.

Today marks the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1871 and it is also the day Billie Holiday recorded this nation's first civil rights song, "Strange Fruit." It's a song about the crimes that prompted Congress to pass the 1871 law that was, for another hundred years, merely window dressing on a culture predicated on fear and hate.

It is the tenth anniversary of the school shooting in Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado and the 120th birthday of Adolf Hitler. Eight years ago today, China de-listed homosexuality as a mental illness. Today, Senator John Kerry announced his intention to save our nation's newspapers.

Are there any connections here? Yes there are.

There was an excellent post today on HuffPo about how disconnected we've become since the rise of Facebook, iPhones, Blackberry, Twitter, and 24/7 hyperconnectivity.

If there's one thing we know for sure since Facebook created 5000 degrees of separation (you're allowed no more than 5000 friends), it's that people are fascinated by what's not there. Is it really preferable to forgo a sunny day to stare bleary-eyed into the simpler days depicted in a shot from first grade picture day or to spend hours writing disembodied words at some imagined lover who exists only as a cipher? No, but as our list of friends on Facebook and our number of followers on Twitter grows, certain aspects of our lives shrink.

So what does that shrinkage look like? There's a book you can still get called A Hundred Years of Lynching that compiles newspaper stories about lynchings that occurred in the South between 1886 and 1960. Used to be, newspapers were how we knew stuff like who got killed by whom, where and why. And books told us in a deeper way the same things. That is no longer the case.

Digital recording devices have started to replace appointment television viewing except for a few live shows and sporting events where something's at stake.

With increasing regularity, we learn about wars, deals, laws, dates and all the rest in the piecemeal way afforded by the Web and our personal digital assistants, and increasingly those hooked into Twitter are on top of breaking news and know what's happening in the world before the major television news networks can get their arms around the story.

Our radical connection to information has passed mere addiction and now approaches a sort of "will to omniscience." The more you hit "refresh" the closer you are to God's point of view. The 0s of this young century are all about the decentralization of information. The here and now of history has been smashed like the Tower of Babel. The result is a lot of noise. There is something to be said for the noise, and there is something to be said for decentralization.

Surely in the age of Judith Miller helping Dick Cheney and Karl Rove start a war, newspapers have shed a fair amount of authority they once enjoyed.

With Bill O'Reilly and Bill Maher and Glenn Beck and Jon Stewart (and Stephen Colbert) doing their best to make news fun, there can be no Walter Cronkite.

Websites are now eligible for Pulitzer Prizes ever since Talking Points Memo founder Josh Marshall broke the story about the politically motivated dismissal of U.S. attorneys a while back. (Today is also the day those prizes are given out.) Judith Miller's criminal reporting was exposed by Marcy Wheeler and other citizen journalists. The truth came out piecemeal, but it came out. It came out here, there and everywhere. Getting the story straight requires a massive amount of connectivity.

As the world of information grows and the tendrils reach down deeper into our lives many things get smaller, like the amount of quality time we spend with the people around us. Information makes the world smaller, and turns us all into denizens of an ideal village, but at a radical cost.

When Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris decided to kill their classmates and themselves, we got a taste of what our culture might be doing to the most vulnerable and the most unstable among us. Back then, the game Doom was marked as the scourge. When Megan Meier killed herself after her "boyfriend" (actually a bullying mom and daughter team) broke off their torrid online affair, the world was shocked and thought it was sad a young lady could have such a small life.

Social networking is a great tool. It can bring us in touch with our past, and connect people who are geographically distant. It can start a revolution, or help change attitudes. Texting the revolution is a real thing, and the mass protests such networking can spur change laws and listings and improve lives as with the gay community in China who are no longer being deemed ill.

That said, Facebook allows users 5000 friends, and not one of them could have stopped Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.

 

Follow Beau Friedlander on Twitter: www.twitter.com/BeauFriedlander