Like hundreds of thousands of Americans, I was far from home on the morning of September 11, finishing up a breakfast meeting at an office near Washington, D.C. After learning of the morning's events, I immediately wanted to call my wife and tell her I was unharmed. But the cell-phone circuits were jammed. My friends and I took over a vacated cubicle and tried over and over to make long-distance calls to our families, finally getting through and leaving emotional messages in response to eerily placid voicemail greetings. Then we set about making our plans to return home, only to realize that, for a few days at least, we were grounded.
Modernity is built in no small part on technologies of presence. From the cellular telephone to television to air travel, we are embedded in a web of devices that make us seem to be somewhere we are not, or that remove us from one place and take us to another with speeds that would have seemed supernatural to our ancestors.
On normal days these technologies inspire gratitude and even wonder. They give us a sense of connection across space and time, paradoxically encouraging us to travel farther and more often, to readily move across the country or to the other side of the globe for the sake of new opportunities. How many partings are eased by "I'll call you when I get there"?
But on September 11, our various technologies shuddered briefly, ground to a halt, or, most awful of all, were turned into weapons of terror. For a few hours in the Northeast, all that was really working was the tv. Workers and travelers shared a common cup of televised suffering, cut off from their families and friends across the city or across the country, their technologies of presence suddenly impotent. ...1