The end of the world as we know it

Today has been surreal – I can’t help feeling that the world is ending. Which – I hope – it isn’t really. But I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the world in which we are all familiar has changed irrevocably.

Allow me to explain that print publications like this one work a couple weeks ahead of the date printed on the cover. So, I find myself writing this on Sept. 11, a day that will live in history as a horrifying milestone. The assaults on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in the U.S. are foremost in everyone’s mind at the office today, and the day-to-day press releases I receive routinely detailing things like faster processors, more bandwidth and new e-commerce implementations seem ridiculously trivial when compared to tragedies of such epic proportions.

I am reminded of something the great retired newsman Walter Cronkite said recently at a conference I attended – that one thing technology has profoundly changed is the way news is covered, especially when faced with images of war. When something like this attack happens, people today can’t help but be made aware of the atrocities committed, whether heard from radio reports, or viewed through television and the Internet.

At first, with similar results as a Denial of Service attack would have had, several major news organizations’ Web sites buckled under the strain, after they were overloaded by the onslaught of traffic from Internet users seeking updates on the terrorist attacks. But as more details unfolded, some of the media organizations simplified their Web sites in order to reduce bandwidth and lighten their server loads., and the Web site for the New York Times, among many others, were down to zero availability shortly after the first plane crash was reported.

Later in the day, the CNN site, normally laden with various links and graphics, was stripped of most visuals and pared down to one major story with the headline “America Under Attack.” Other media sites took a similar approach to deal with increased traffic. According to Mitch Gellman,’s executive producer, traffic on that site soared just 10 minutes after the first attack was reported. In fact, the entire Internet infrastructure in the U.S. experienced a significant drop in performance marked by an increased packet loss and difficulty in reaching some Web sites. However, these effects were short lived, and near-normal performance was restored in about an hour, according to reports.

With cellular and land line networks being flooded and overwhelmed with calls, a number of people turned to messaging systems to check on fellow friends and family members, as well as using this as a means to organize relief efforts, and to set up “I’m Okay” type message boards. Nortel Networks Inc. donated 5,000 cell phones to New York and Washington areas to help people communicate, using a two-way direct connect technology that allows quick bursts of voice communication over a network instead of tying up a line during a conversation. As of press time, there were even unconfirmed reports of people trapped in rubble using cell phones to call for help.

So, technology has played a very important role in easing, somewhat, this disaster for people. But still, I can’t help but feel disillusioned.

We have all this technology at our disposal, but it has ultimately failed us. I find myself asking the question, na