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Monday, May 17, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
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E-conomy / Paul Andrews
Digital Age reveals war's brutal details

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In the Digital Age's most compelling double-entendre, author Stewart Brand once observed that information wants to be free.

Brand's observation usually is raised in the context of pricing — or the lack thereof — for online content. But I've always thought the adage contains a subtler point: that information has a built-in momentum toward emancipation — freedom from censorship, control and "spin."

Proof of the latter interpretation came with the recent outcry over digital photographs from Iraq. Images of flag-draped coffins and, subsequently, tortured Iraqi prisoners, in both cases eluded efforts aimed at suppression, resulting in a firestorm of wartime debate.

Interestingly, the controversy over whether it was proper for The Seattle Times and other media to print coffin photos may have made it safer for news media to show prison abuse. In contrast to the coffin debate, few have suggested that the media acted irresponsibly in printing the prison photos.

What did come to light was a curious naiveté from the administration over the efficiencies and impacts of digital technology. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in testimony before Congress, seemed awe-struck at the power of a digital camera to get information to the public with a speed and breadth that in the past simply was not possible.

Until he saw the photographs, Rumsfeld said, he had no idea how brutal the prison treatment was — despite a 6,000-page military report's graphic text descriptions (as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton pointed out). "Words don't do it," Rumsfeld said.

But here's the kicker: Digital imagery's impact on war is just getting started. As Internet penetration gains TV-like numbers worldwide and high-speed broadband becomes the default access technology, graphic visual depiction of warfare is certain to gain wider dissemination.

During the Abu Ghraib furor, disturbing video of a nighttime U.S. helicopter attack on Iraqis was posted by Net activist John Perry Barlow on his Web log. The video, which Barlow pointed out raised questions about rules of war, has gotten comparatively little attention. But it is an unsettling reminder of video's power in life-or-death situations.

Given the reaction to the Abu Ghraib still photos, one can anticipate even stronger outrage at graphic video footage. How broadly video from the prison gets distributed, in fact, may be the next test of the Brand axiom.

Atrocities are an inevitable part of war. But they have generally been shielded from the public, especially during time of combat. Vietnam's most notorious episode, the My Lai massacre, was not reported until 20 months after it took place. The story was reported by Seymour Hersh, coincidentally, who also first reported the Iraqi prison torture in The New Yorker magazine.

One can assume that the Digital Age will continue to break down the cocoon of unknowingness that has protected public awareness from the true ravages of war. The "real-time" Web, where PC cameras and digital camcorders feed events to the Internet as they are taking place, is in its infancy.
Imagine weather cameras capturing a bombing or attack as it happened. Or camera-equipped robots touring a bloody confrontation. Add to the mix civilians with digital cameras and camcorders doing on-site documentation.

As Rumsfeld noted, imagery has a greater psychological impact than text. Web loggers already have proved the power of text alone to draw attention to everyday matters that elude media notice. Bloggers equipped with cameras and camcorders further empower the quest for truth.

The one caveat to digital technology's future wartime impact may come with further regulation and even censorship of the Internet itself. Guardians of the Net will need to be ever more vigilant as government and corporate forces attempt — particularly in the wake of the coffin and prison controversies — to restrict allowable uses of digital technology.

Information may want to be free, but it will have to resist metaphorical detainment to do so.

Paul Andrews is a freelance technology writer and co-author of "Gates." He can be reached at

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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