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Musings on digital media, urbanization and politics from Seattle, Wash.

The permanence of digital media is hitting us—and it is weird

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September 10, 2021

Tomorrow is the 20th anniversary of 9/11. Of course. As with any big historic anniversary, there is media reminding us it has been a-number-divisible-by-five-years since it happened. The media, as it surely was in 2006, 2011 and 2016, is reflective of the year or years in which it was produced.

In 2021, this is among the crop of content:

It, well, it makes sense.

I’ll admit, I haven’t watched any of the September 11th content that has been produced. I know there are pieces that are surely outstanding, poignant, illuminating and heartfelt. It’s just, I can’t. I don’t really want to go back to then.

Because then, then was weird.

And looking at it through a 2021 lens can’t quite capture that.

With the digitization of every form of media, we can be transported back to early-aughts, or many other periods. This digitization is, of course, nothing new now two-plus decades into the 21st century. But as the historical events tick off, more and more occurred during a time when archives from that period exist in digital media’s living memory.

Many of you have likely seen this bounce around Twitter but if you want a single piece of media that most embodies how supremely bizarre the immediate aftermath of September 11th was, here you go.

You watch and you hear “September 24th” and think “Wow, they just went right back to, like, Will & Grace and Friends? All normal like that?”

But what were they going to do? What could you do? You had some production assistants pore over every reel of behind-the-scenes footage, found everyone looking sad or pensieve when they were probably bored or tired, and you ran it with sad music.

You continued on. But solemnly. Respectfully. Patriotically.

It was so weird.

This is the second time in a few weeks a piece of media plucked from that era stuck with me, really reminded me of what it was like.

As United States troops withdrew from Afghanistan, we were—if we cared to look—shown what American culture was like when the longest war in our country’s history was just beginning.

Again, very weird.

Michael Schurr, then a writer on Saturday Night Live, said it’s not what it seems—and was intended to be satire. But, who knows? Would anyone have noticed if it a sizable chunk of the audience inferred it was gleefully celebrating the invasion?

I don’t think so.

Of course, these two pieces of media weren’t actually originally distributed digitally. But with tools and services in 2021, is easy to both make that happen and then spread that media far as an audience is interested in seeing it.

The relic I’ve seen circulate the most today, September 10th, is this tweet thread.

With only an old book and a smartphone camera, we’re taken back to the editorial cartoons that appeared in newspapers across the country immediately following the attacks. There’s more than a couple I remember seeing, images and depictions I’d completely forgotten about—because they were normal for the times.

It’s a lot. And it is weird.

Here’s a few, pulled from that thread.

Surreal. Bizarre. But important.

I don’t intend to imply that never before have we been able to look clearly back on our history—that’s obviously not the case. But this digitization—both the ability to transport old media and the instant-permanence of new content—gives us a level of detail we did not have before.

That level of detail increases with time, but so does certain entities’ desire to ignore it.

I’m reminded very frequently, by many things, of a passage from The Case for Reparations from Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Reparations—by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences—is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely. The recovering alcoholic may well have to live with his illness for the rest of his life. But at least he is not living a drunken lie. Reparations beckons us to reject the intoxication of hubris and see America as it is—the work of fallible humans.

The digitization of media is making that collective biography more robust, more detailed, more clear.

It’s going to be tough, but we need to go back and read those chapters we wrote, even the ones we wrote relatively recently.

They’re going to be weird. Many may be bad, because they are the work of fallible humans. But we can’t only focus on what’s in front of us.

As anyone who’s any good at it will tell you—you have to read a lot to be a skilled writer.