Seeking a human link to the first Internet war

April 08, 1999|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- There are times in my life as a frequent flier when I glance at the plane phone with a dark, imaginative eye. What would I do if this plane were in trouble, I wonder. Would I call home? Would I reach out to make a final contact?

I remember the image of the doomed climber on Mount Everest talking by radio-telephone link to his pregnant wife as he died. He was hopeless, on an icy mountain in Nepal. She was helpless, in a cozy home in New Zealand.

These are not ordinary events or everyday fantasies. But it seems to me that all the new tools of communication tease us with the possibility that we can reach out, especially in a crisis, over vast distances and deep gulfs of experience. We can make a human connection.

Now this expanding technology is changing our experience of that deepest human crisis -- war -- and feeding another illusion. We are knee-deep in what has been dubbed "The First Internet War."

The Vietnam War was The First TV War. Historians tell us that the images beamed into our living rooms made us rebel. Maybe so, or maybe that's when we learned that you could get up from the sofa during a battle and get a Coke.

Live Gulf War

The Gulf War was a first war, too, the First Live War broadcast in CNN time. It, too, brought war home and let us be comfortable voyeurs to a live fireworks show over Baghdad.

Now the conflict in Kosovo is a chat-room war, an e-mail war, a Web site war, a war in which anyone with a PC and a phone line can quite literally become a correspondent. A war in which anyone with a netserver can log on to the war zone.

It's the human-to-human connections that make this war correspondence unique. An ethnic Albanian e-mails his story to whom it may concern: "When darkness comes I will have to leave my home again and find some place to hide." A Macedonian writes into the ether about the refugees in her house, especially the little boy who puts some of every meal in a plastic bag to save for his missing father.

On the Albanian border, a Serbian monk sets up a Web site. In Belgrade, an architect laments the destruction of buildings created by a follower of Le Corbusier.

A physicist educated in the United States writes long urgent e-mails insisting, "We are all so similar deep down." And a high school boy in California holds onto the messages from an Albanian high school girl in Kosovo about fear and music, about life under siege and "the luckiness I feel for just being alive."

The only people not logging on to the world, it seems, are the desperate refugees in camps and fields.

But there is a true disconnect, an odd duality in the notion of an Internet War. After all, the Internet in all of its immediacy gives us the impression that we live in a world that is growing smaller by the day, higher tech by the week. The war in the Balkans tells us about a world in which people are splintered by hatred as ancient as tribes.

Connect, disconnect

The Internet makes us believe that we can be in touch all the time. War teaches us about the devastating breakdown of ties, the bleak refusal to understand.

Those people who live online may think of themselves as netizens, citizens of the world. But the warmongers talk of "ethnic cleansing." The Internet breeds a population at home in cyberspace; the war creates hordes of homeless refugees.

And even as the Internet watchers take pride in erasing time zones, they remain as disconnected from the brutal reality of war victims as a wife in New Zealand was disconnected from a husband on Mount Everest.

Albert Einstein once said that the atom bomb "has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe."

The Internet has changed much about the way we can communicate. Yet in this most recent drift toward catastrophe it does little to change the old modes of thinking, the ancient habit of hating.

So we log on and log off this war at will. Meanwhile a video artist about to escape Belgrade writes in her e-mail diary: "And the news is really bad. . . If there will be no more electricity, I'll continue sending messages through the clouds. Someone may catch it."

Ellen Goodman writes a syndicated column.

Pub Date: 4/08/99

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