It might have started on Twitter, maybe as a photo published on Instagram or even a Facebook status update. Regardless, if the assassination happened today, it would be only minutes before the world discovered that President John F. Kennedy had been shot.
We would have watched Camelot fall, 144 characters at a time.
While 1963 was no technological dark age — there were plenty of folks on hand with cameras, both stills and video, that day in Dealey Plaza — the past 50 years have seen a dramatic revolution in personal technology.
Check your pockets or purse: Chances are there’s a phone inside with vastly more computing power than the machines NASA would later use to fulfill JFK’s promise of putting a man on the moon.
That revolution has shaped the way we receive news: Instead of the calming, fatherly voice of a Walter Cronkite, a variety of ringtones, beeps, Tweets, and a whole host of shrill little noises break the news of our modern tragedies.
If it happened today, entire rooms of smart phones would vibrate with text messages and push alerts from news and media apps. Bright little boxes on touch screens would light up in all our pockets and in a matter of moments the news would reach millions.
In 1963, the power of the traditional media as gatekeepers was unrivaled. A half-century later, the gate itself has widened to include bl-oggers, amateurs and citizen journalists armed with pocket-sized digital cameras and iPads. Some of the most powerful coverage of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center was shared not by media professionals but by common citizens: Eyewitness accounts captured on phones, cameras and hard drives and uploaded to the Internet.
While still a dramatically powerful voice, the traditional media itself has changed, too. The 24-hour news cycle runs nonstop — chewing through stories and talking heads in a blur of split-screen interviews, raised voices and sharp neckties tied ever so perfectly.
And events like the recent Naval Yard shooting and the Boston Marathon bombing have shown us that new technologies are no replacement for solid reporting; the coverage of both incidents suffered from false reports that got out far too quickly — flames fanned by social media and rumor.
Perhaps the most profound effect of that revolution, though, is the one it’s had on us. Technology, that ever-so human knack for invention, our ability to record and store knowledge — from cave paintings to printing presses and onward to the Information Superhighway — is perhaps mankind’s greatest talent.
Technology brings education and solutions to impoverished parts of our world, can empower the disenfranchised and has provided advances in medical science, agriculture and dozens of other fields that have elevated the human condition in uncountable ways. With a few keystrokes and clicks, Google can serve up any number of links on the almost infinite ways technology has improved our lives.
But that same interconnectivity, that ever-shrinking globe, also means we’re mere clicks from news of wars, from genocide and horror. The non-stop news cycle brings us shootings, murders, abandoned children and kidnappings — almost more than can be borne. The impact of a tragic story is felt, for a time, and then replaced by the relentless pace of the modern flow of information.
The great irony of the Kennedy assassination is that today, the technology exists to almost instantly cover every aspect of such a huge story, but with far less impact than it had in 1963. Some of that is because technology has changed.
And maybe some of that is because we changed, too.