Welcome to the Hive Mind

The Fix is a big fan of Joel Achenbach and his blog Achenblog. We wanted to get some of Joel’s unique perspective into the Fix on a more regular basis and so we asked him to write a political week in review piece every Friday. Make sure to follow all of his work here and follow him on Twitter too.

It was a slow news week by the standards of last week, which was insane and horrible. This week we were tiptoeing through the tulips. All the living presidents gathered for a Kumbaya moment at the George W. Bush presidential library. Polarization? Not in America! Group hug!

I keep thinking about the hive-mind. For all the hand-wringing over the fragmentation of media and the scattering of our attention, for all the grousing about how life was simpler when news came from real authorities and the evening news meant Walter Cronkite and Huntley-Brinkley and whoever was on ABC, it seems as if a countercurrent is taking us into a single news whirlpool. This was the week when the market momentarily crashed on ONE tweet from a hacked AP account.


The Borg.

We have created the noosphere, and it’s a little bit twitchy.

Boston is still the big story. As more details come in about the bombings, it looks more and more like a couple of numbskulls on a personal jihad. The surviving suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, reportedly said he and his brother were thinking of heading to Manhattan to bomb Times Square. These were not good people. The experts will sort out what’s political and ideological and what’s simply sociopathic, cruel and evil – what’s just a desire to blow people up because it can be done.

One could make the case that Boston is more of a crime story than a national security story. (Discuss.) Someone suggested to me this week that we’d become a bit overreactive to such moments. One possibility is that 9/11 changed everything.

But I suspect that technology, and the shape and design of the news media, has made big stories bigger than ever, more intense, more likely to crowd out other stories (whatever happened to gun violence legislation?). This is an evolving situation, but one of the major leaps forward was the O.J. Simpson murder case. There was no limit to the consumer demand for O.J. news, and the more the media produced, the greater the fever for additional details. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both Fox News Channel and MSNBC went on the air the year after the O.J. trial. Something had changed: We needed more information, faster, whenever we wanted it.

And the Internet was exploding then. Soon we all had it at our desks at work. Think of how radical a change that was: We were plugged in all day long. Then came the Lewinsky case, and the lost year of impeachment, 1998. Then the Florida Recount. Then 9/11. Then the invasion of Iraq. Then Katrina. Then the Great Campaign of 2008, toward the end of which we had the economic collapse and the Great Recession. And so on. Make your own list. With each big story the overall media apparatus gets larger, faster, more reflexive.

This is the organic growth of the hive-mind. It’s unilateral and irreversible. Once you go there, there’s no going back – except for those with courage to unplug. Which reminds me that I need to stop typing and go out into my yard and admire my tulips.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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Aaron Blake | April 26, 2013