In “Lost in Space” MoDo ponders gunfire, pressure cookers, tweets, vigilantes and talking heads who can’t stop talking. The Moustache of Wisdom, in “Goodbye to All That,” says with the resignation of Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister, goes the progress made toward transparent governance and a two-state solution. Here’s MoDo:
When James Gleick was my editor on the City Desk of The Times, he would often stare into space.
This was no mere daydreaming. Every time he stared, a clever idea bloomed. After leaving The Times, he founded one of the first Internet service providers. He made chaos theory so celebrated it inspired Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia.” He wrote science and technology books acclaimed for making the theoretical sexy, including “The Information,” a history from cuneiforms to coding about the thing we want most and have the most of, the thing that defines us, and the thing that brings pleasure and predicament in equal measure.
Everybody is continuously connected to everybody else on Twitter, on Facebook, on Instagram, on Reddit, e-mailing, texting, faster and faster, with the flood of information jeopardizing meaning. Everybody’s talking at once in a hypnotic, hyper din: the cocktail party from hell.
Jim is at work now on a book about the history of time travel, though he doesn’t believe in it. (Take that, H.G. Wells and Doctor Who.)
I was taken with a piece he wrote this week for New York magazine about how the Boston Marathon bombings exposed a new phase in our experience of what David Foster Wallace called Total Noise: “the tsunami of available fact, context, and perspective.”
The unfolding terror, Jim wrote, “found the ecosystem of information in a strange and unstable state: Twitter on the rise, cable TV in disarray, Internet vigilantes bleeding into the F.B.I.’s staggeringly complex (and triumphant) crash program of forensic video analysis. If there ever was a dividing line between cyberspace and what we used to call ‘the real world,’ it vanished last week.” Crowd-sourcing quickly turned into witchhunting, he noted, and bits of intelligence surfaced amid “new forms of banality.”
Jim asserted that embarrassing instances of jumping the gun on arrest bulletins at CNN and Fox News, and airwaves filled with hollow, incessant chatter and pseudoinformation, showed that “continuous real-time broadcast news is a failed experiment.”
Roger Ailes may not be quaking in his loafers. But has the long-ingrained automatic impulse to turn on the TV when news happens run its course?
I asked Jim to elaborate over coffee.
“The TV audience used to be isolated and passive,” he said. “Now everybody is tweeting and texting to everybody else, and sometimes the viewers know more than the hapless microphone-wielding faces on TV.
“During the drama of the Boston manhunt and car chase, it never occurred to me to turn on the TV. The screen I needed was on my iPhone, where I followed the tweets of newspaper reporters running through the streets of Boston and Cambridge residents listening to gunfire in real-time. The Internet is messy, pointillist, noisy, often wrong. But if you had a visceral need for instantaneity, TV couldn’t compete.
“Reporters doing TV news in real-time are an oxymoron: You can’t gather news and present it at the same time. Part of newsgathering is the gathering part.
“People on Twitter were crowing about how superior Twitter is to old media. What they meant was, ‘See, we’re faster than TV.’ And I’m there. But I’m also still an old-media guy, because the information that matters sometimes comes the next day or the next month, when there is time to digest and interpret. The best reporting in Boston last week was not in cyberspace. It was in the two great daily newspapers that were on the scene, The Boston Globe and The Times.
“The battle lines are being drawn between the crowds and the experts. The crowds are fast and can be smart, but sometimes they’re horribly wrong, like the Internet vigilantes on Reddit who thought they could do better than the F.B.I. in looking at photographs and exposing the guilty. But crowd-sourcing was also part of the newsgathering. In a very real way, we had eyes and ears everywhere.”
I asked him about the episode on Tuesday, when Syrian hackers took over The Associated Press’s Twitter account and falsely reported that there had been two explosions at the White House and that the president was injured — a hoax that sent the Dow into a tailspin for three minutes and wiped out $136 billion from the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index.
“There’s no perfect trust in cyberspace,” Jim said. “There are not only millions of voices, but millions of masks. You don’t know who’s who. There was a real Twitter account for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, but, instantly, there was a fake Twitter account for him, too.
“We have all these new channels and tools to understand the world as it happens, but there’s no reliable algorithm for sorting through the morass. It used to be to read the morning paper on the way to work and read the evening paper on the way home. Now we have to invent a new personal methodology every day. And if we’re waiting for things to settle down and become simple, that’s never going to happen.”
And then poor Jim, as confused as the rest of us, stared into space.
Well, Mr. Gleick (love your work, by the way) and MoDo (can’t say the same about your work, dear), there’s always the option of not twitter-twatting or gossiping on Facebook. And ignoring 95% of what’s being breathlessly served up by the 24-hour “news” networks… Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:
On April 13, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad of the Palestinian Authority resigned. It was an easy development to miss, but not one to be ignored. It was very bad news, because Salam Fayyad was the “Arab Spring” before there was an Arab Spring. That is, he was what the Arab Spring was supposed to lead to: a new generation of decent Arab leaders whose primary focus would be the human development of their own people, not the enrichment of their family, tribe, sect or party. That Fayyad’s brand of noncorrupt, institution-focused leadership was not sufficiently supported by other Palestinian leaders, the Arab states, Israel and America is really depressing. It does not bode well for the revolutions in Egypt, Syria or Tunisia — none of which have a Fayyad-quality leader at the helm.
Who is Salam Fayyad? A former economist at the International Monetary Fund, he first came to prominence when he was named finance minister of the Palestinian Authority in 2002, after donors got fed up seeing their contributions diverted for corruption. Shortly after he became prime minister in 2007, I coined the term “Fayyadism” — the all-too-rare notion that an Arab leader’s legitimacy should be based not on slogans or resistance to Israel and the West or on personality cults or security services, but on delivering decent, transparent, accountable governance.
Fayyad “dried up all slush accounts and went against Yasir Arafat’s orders by insisting on paying all security officials by direct bank account (rather than with cash given to their commanders based on a questionable list of personnel),” wrote Daoud Kuttab, a prominent Palestinian journalist, in The Jewish Daily Forward. “Fayyad also became the first Arab government official to publish his government’s entire budget online, ushering a new transparency not seen in the entire Arab region.”
Fayyad also played the leading role in rebuilding the Palestinian security services in the West Bank, which even the Israeli military grew to respect, and in trying to build Palestinian institutions, on the argument that the more Palestinians built their institutions — finance, police, social services — the more Israel’s denial of them of a state will be unsustainable.
“Fayyad’s embrace of economic transparency, which included U.S.-led audits, was instrumental in attracting increased international aid,” noted David Makovsky, director of the project on the Middle East peace process at The Washington Institute. “Despite a deep worldwide recession, the I.M.F. reported 9 percent growth for the West Bank between 2008 and 2010. … As late as the second half of 2011, public support for Fayyad’s government was at 53 percent, 19 points ahead of the Hamas government in Gaza.”
Hamas hated Fayyad, and many Palestinian Authority officials were jealous of him, but success protected him until 2011. President Mahmoud Abbas, frustrated by the right-wing Israeli government’s refusal to strike a land-for-peace deal, decided to seek recognition of Palestinian statehood at the United Nations. The United States retaliated by cutting off aid, and Israel did so by withholding Palestinian tax receipts. I thought it foolish for Abbas to go to the U.N., but I thought it irresponsible for America’s Congress to cut off aid to the Palestinians for doing so — when we’ve never retaliated for the even more obstructionist building of settlements by Israel.
The loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in aid tanked the Palestinian economy. Public-sector workers went unpaid, and Fayyad had to impose austerity. Abbas and some of the old guard in his Fatah party, who never liked Fayyadism, “used Fayyad as a scapegoat for Palestinian economic troubles, in part out of resentment at his efforts to constrain patronage and corruption,” noted Makovsky. “Blaming Fayyad for the latest downturn is especially audacious,” he added. After all, last fall, Fayyad “broke his hand in a meeting with Fatah members as he banged it on the table, vehemently arguing that it was irresponsible to go to the U.N. unless there were sufficient reserves to cover an aid slowdown.” Fayyad finally got fed up and quit.
My four takeaways:
1. For Palestinians, particularly Abbas and Fatah, who so easily turned their most effective executive into a scapegoat, if there is no place for a Salam Fayyad-type in your leadership, an independent state will forever elude you.
2. Hamas and the Israeli settlers are both really happy today. Fayyad’s aim to build a decent Palestinian state in the West Bank, at peace with Israel, was a huge threat to both of them. They both prefer permanent struggle so they both can claim there is no one to talk to on the other side and, therefore, they never have to change policies.
3. Thanks, American Congress and Israeli government. Your mindless, repeated cutoffs of cash to Fayyad’s government helped undermine the best Palestinian peace partner Israel and the U.S. ever had. Nice job.
4. “There is nothing inevitable about a liberal order emerging from any of these Arab awakenings,” argues the pollster Craig Charney. Indeed, to produce that outcome takes someone like a Fayyad with the consistent help of external parties as well as a loyal base at home ready to see it through. In the end, Fayyad had neither. Add another nail in the coffin of the two-state solution.