Since September 11, 2001, technology has rapidly evolved, but perhaps not in the ways that we might have expected. It's no surprise that security systems and methods of terrorist detection ramped up and with good reason. But much of the technology growth over the last ten years -- particularly on the Internet -- has been about sharing.
Instead of closing ourselves off to the world, the world has opened up and in dramatic fashion. Whether it be videos of the Japanese tsunami taken with a cellphone, the very first reports of an airplane safely crash-landing in the Hudson River on Twitter or the organization of protests via Facebook that have led to sweeping political change in the Middle East, the focus of technology this past decade has been communication.
Now imagine the impact of these new technologies on 9/11; just how differently that day might have unfolded and how our perspectives might have changed. Below are ten technologies that have either expanded exponentially or come into existence since then and how they might have affected the tragic events of that day. Some, you've probably already considered, but others might be surprising.
10. Twitter As often as it is maligned as nothing more than a way for people to post worthless chatter about their day, Twitter has become a de facto news wire for millions of people. Long before it is on the front page of a newspaper and often minutes if not hours before TV and Internet reports on it, people find it on Twitter. Firsthand accounts of events as serious as political unrest and natural disasters to things as trivial as celebrity sightings are found on the social networking site daily. It is safe to assume that the first news of the events of September 11 would have been seen on Twitter and it is possible that, like text messages, it could have come directly from the source before the planes reached their intended targets. It's sobering to think that something as frequently inconsequential as a Tweet could have saved many lives had it existed.
And one can only imagine what the tweets would have been like from people in the north tower of the World Trade Center in the half-hour between the south tower's collapse and its own.
9. Cloud Computing One overlooked item of importance in the aftermath of 9/11 was the loss of data suffered when the World Trade Center towers collapsed. Obviously, loss of life was the much more substantial tragedy, but thousands of computers and servers were housed in one of the world's largest financial centers. At the time, critical backup of software and data was normally done to tape drives or other computers, often in the same building. With cloud computing, data would have been stored at alternate sites, making the recovery of financial networks much easier.
8. Foursquare & Check-In Services One of the biggest concerns for those who had loved ones in New York or Washington D.C. was finding out if they were safe. Cell phone towers -- particularly at that time -- were quickly overloaded, but phone transmission systems normally have exponentially more room for data (i.e. texting and Internet use) than they do for voice. With a simple check-in on Foursquare or Facebook, friends and family could have quickly been alerted that the people were okay.
7. Google Perhaps no Internet technology company has grown to become such an essential part of people's daily lives in the last decade as Google. During the events of September 11, Gmail certainly could have helped people communicate and Google News would have helped keep news stories organized, but the biggest impact would have undoubtedly come from Google Maps. One of the problems for people on the ground in New York was finding their way out of lower Manhattan. The Google mapping technology, utilized in countless software applications, would have provided invaluable assistance to those trying to flee the area and to emergency crews trying to help evacuate victims and find their way into the mess to save lives. 6. Digital Cameras In 2001, only professional photographers, for the most part, had cameras of the quality many of us carry around in our pockets today. The digital SLR was still in its relative infancy despite the fact that arguably the most iconic photo from the aftermath came from one of them. But, had the millions of people who carry around on their phones what would have been considered good quality cameras ten years ago had them on 9/11, our view of those events would have been immeasurably changed.
5. Facebook If the events in the Middle East have taught us anything, it's that organization through social networking is not only possible, it is happening every day in ways we cannot begin to yet imagine. It's easy to poke fun at a service that finds its users photo tagged holding beer bongs and playing FarmVille, but it has become the first real social gathering place of the twenty-first century. Had Facebook been around ten years ago, the simple act of uniting people who were grieving would have been valuable, but the ability to organize people in relief efforts could have been profound.
4. Wi-Fi Today, there are entire cities with open wi-fi networks. Virtually everywhere you go, there's some store or restaurant or coffee shop that offers free wi-fi. That wasn't the case in 2001, but if it had been, it could have offered support to badly strained cellular and land telephone line networks. Messages, e-mails and even video chats could have been initiated using wi-fi. It's conceivable that individuals could have given on-the-scene reports before any reporter could make it to within 20 blocks of ground zero through Face Time on an iPhone.
3. YouTube YouTube is certainly entertaining, but it also provides a legitimate way for average people to post videos they shot, many times on simple cell phones. The homemade video of the planes hitting the towers in New York was stunning if for no other reason than it was so rare. There was no video taken at the site of the crash in our nation's capital, but there could have been with modern technology and it would have likely made it to YouTube where millions could access it.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the mission of the Houston Press. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Houston’s stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
2. Texting The simple act of contacting loved ones might be the most poignant way texting could have been used on 9/11, but it may have been lifesaving as well. Texting was still barely used in 2001 and most cell companies charged per text, so it is not surprising that it didn't play a substantial role at the time, but today, it would have no doubt been mobilized to collect donations and send alerts from officials -- some of you might have gotten texts during Hurricane Ike regarding the purity of drinking water, for example. But, most importantly, texts could have been sent from people on hijacked flights, perhaps even providing advance warning to authorities.
1. Smart Phones For the millions of us who use the iPhone, the Android or the BlackBerry every day, it's become an afterthought. From directions to e-mail to Internet access, we take for granted what has been in existence for only a few years. It is impossible to calculate the impact of such advanced technological devices -- and, make no mistake, that is exactly what they are -- ten years ago, but there is no doubt it would have been substantial. The smart phone is like the Swiss Army knife of technology and we can only imagine how it would have been used to shape the events of September 11.