ALARMED: The First Internet Conflict?

I could have ignored the war completely here and written about, say, software patch management. But that would have felt forced, just as it would have felt forced to sensationalise the hacking of al-Jazeera’s Web site or to create tenuous links between IT security and the war. It appears by research and news stories that you’re not doing anything different with security since the war started. If you are doing something different to secure your infrastructure now, you probably weren’t securing it well in the first place. But you know that.

Instead of trying to force the war into the mission of this column, I’d like to focus instead on what we’ve all become over the past week: consumers of the war through the Internet. This was, after all, supposed to be the first “Internet war,” in the same culturally significant way that Vietnam was the first “television war” and the first Gulf War was the first “24-hour cable news war.” But, so far, I’ve found the Internet wholly incapabable of delivering anything new or different or better than other “old media.”

Note that the first stories about the Internet’s role in the war focused on how well the infrastructure held up to a suddenly ravenous demand for online news — as if it were a massively impressive fact that the Internet didn’t fail. That doesn’t say much for what we expect from the Internet.

At any rate, the stories people have been compulsively clicking to have proven both less in-depth than newspapers and radio (even reprinted newspaper content is not nearly as navigable online as it is on a broadsheet) and less compelling than some of the imagery on television. I’ve yet to feel any of the horror of war from a single moment on the Internet, though I’ve felt several reading the newspaper, listening to radio and watching TV. What we’re getting from online news sites is a regular refresh of pretty pictures of desert sunsets and soldiers looking soldierly.

And we’re getting headlines. Lots of headlines.

Scrolling headlines. For several hours two nights ago and the next morning, CNN.com scrolled the fact that paratroopers had just landed in Northern Iraq.

Big, new bold headlines. “Battle for Nasiriyah” blared Boston.com, but it led to an old story with a new paragraph tossed on top of it, like a sandbag on a bunker, which simply added the moniker to the battle we had been reading about all morning.

Oddly vague headlines. The New York Times website, possbily looking for a fresh angle, ran this: “Economic Analysis: War in Iraq Could Bring US Recession, or Economic Growth.”

Trite headlines. CNN.com has “More explosions heard in Baghdad” scrolling right now.

And somewhat absurd headlines. “A canister of cooking gas exploded at the US Navy 5th Fleet base in Bahrain, which caused the loud explosion, officials say.”

That last one, I think, points to the problem with the Web during a war. The Web’s too fast. War isn’t fought at Internet speed. Or, at least, war can’t be reported at Internet speed, even when a journalist is “embedded” in an infantry division.

I thought the maps, timelines, “weapons of war” schematics and the blogs and all of the other interactive material would prove to be where the value of the Internet lies during this conflict, and it still may turn out to be the case. The medium still remains valuable in its ability to connect people who are otherwise cut off; it’s vast globalness makes it such that, if you really want to see images of American POWs that domestic news refuses to show, you can find them online.

But so far, none of it has shown the kind of cultural significance that TV did in Vietnam or CNN did in the first Gulf War.

None of which is very important to your job — a job which, according to our scientific and unscientific polls, isn’t at all affected by the war. Except, perhaps, by the fact that when there’s a war, it’s hard to concentrate on software solutions and such. And it’s hard to celebrate the Internet right now. No matter how fast it is.

“Alarmed” is a biweekly column about security and privacy. Look for a new version every other Thursday.

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