Musings About 9/11, Our World and Our Industry

What a year! It's been 12 months now since the terrorist attacks on our country. What's happened? Where are we?
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What a year! It's been 12 months now since the terrorist attacks on our country. What's happened? Where are we?

On a personal note, the events of 9/11 strongly affected my creative and professional life - I ended up composing a 48-minute piece of music as an elegy for the people who died that day. And filling one wall of my living room is a surprisingly moving computer-generated Iris print of a spectrogram of that music (you can see a bit of it on Metric Halo's Web site at http://mhlabs.com/features/gift.html). At the same time, the economic uncertainty arising from those events almost certainly played a role in causing a major project I was working on to be tabled indefinitely, leading to both fiscal and professional grief. Today, I still keep the New Yorker magazine with Art Spiegelman's black towers on black cover on the client coffee table in the studio. That's where I am. The whole thing still bothers me.

So, like many, probably most of you, those events have touched me deeply, and also made sort of a dent in my professional life. But they have also receded a little, because I didn't lose any close friends or colleagues, nor did I face the immediate dislocation of my life that many less fortunate people did. Life does go on.

During the week following the 11th, I wrote an article about it that ran in the November issue of TV Technology. I made the case that, while the horror of those events may have made us all question the significance and relevance of our own work, such work was nonetheless honorable and humanistic in its essential nature, unlike the terrorist behaviors of that day, and that we should take substantial satisfaction from that. On a more technical note, I observed that we were all served by the handheld amateur video footage of the day, footage that was made authentic by the very nature of its fragmentary amateurishness.

The truth of these observations seems to hold up over time.

AND NOW?

So what's changed, a year later?

Well, we are certainly a whole lot less naïve. We now know beyond any wishful thinking that bad things can happen, will almost certainly happen, and that some innocent blameless souls among us, even our very selves perhaps, can get instantly and irrevocably snatched away by the cosmic flyswatter that comes ripping through our worlds and lives. We also know for sure that there are people among us who delight in triggering said cosmic flyswatter, just to see the bodies fly. We know it's a messier, riskier and less predictable life than it seemed back in 2000, when we were stoned out of our minds in our happy little millennial bubble.

Our new self-knowledge is probably a good thing, because that view from the bubble was never really a very accurate one.

Meanwhile, our political leadership actually seems to have done pretty well, better than I personally would have expected. Some restraint, some candor, some effort to actually come to grips with the problems that terrorism brings - these have all been welcome. More comforting to me has been the very positive and common-sense way in which both the public and the governmental infrastructures have come together to cooperate on the problem of public security. There's less nonsense, less authoritarianism, as well as a better working relationship between us and the "authorities." More mature and sensible perspectives have emerged - in the face of nuclear terrorism, road rage just doesn't seem like much of a threat anymore - somebody's having a bad-hair day and we can all deal with it. That, in and of itself, is a big improvement.

On the downside, there is a somewhat bubble-headed mentality at the top and in the media that tends to oversimplify the issues and patronize a public that doesn't seem to need it. We don't really need color-coded security, and we can generally tell the difference between the unthinking smarmy fervor of "Americanism" and the more authentic American principles of integrity, toughness, fair play and tolerance - principles that our leaders seem to occasionally have in short supply.

TOO CLOSE

And us? As media, we play along too well and too agreeably - our closeness to the halls of power tends to, uh, sway us. We are too easily persuaded to run the pretentious photo op, the slick soundbite, the simplistic vignette with its attendant emotional outrage, and the ubiquitous cheap file film clip that, repeated endlessly, circumscribes our reality instead of suggesting the much more complex and layered world that lies behind it.

As an industry, we have the resources, the technology, the know-how and the people to really tell the stories of this time. Unfortunately, we don't seem to have the will. And that's a shame.

As an industry capable of recording and telling the complex story of mankind during probably the most important, exciting and globally coherent period in our history, we marginalize ourselves by sticking to business as usual - light infotainment, sports, sitcoms and movies of all vintages. At all levels, it seems to me, we should be pressing ourselves, our companies, our sponsors, our leaders, to reach toward something more.

Technologically, we still celebrate and wallow in the fantasies of our high-res future, while institutionalizing low-res (read cheap) transmission and delivery systems. Meanwhile, we squabble about who owns what, who can copy what, who can show what to whom when and who really cares. Finally, in my little corner, "bad audio" lives on, along with a fair amount of decent audio and very little spectacularly good audio.

As an industry, then, we don't seem to have learned a lot from September 11th. We haven't taken its lessons to heart and it doesn't seem to have affected our work. Those lessons are about our work as storytellers and record keepers, and our need to achieve some excellence here, both in our craft and in our content. As Bob Dixon of NBC and the Olympics said 18 months ago in a letter about audio standards, "When the drive for excellence is combined with common sense, it is the most practical action of all. The issue is focus."

A year later, what seems clear to me from our encounters with the evils of that day is that it is incumbent upon us all to concentrate a lot more fully, intensely and clearly on the stories we need to tell, simply in order to survive in a world where those things exist. As Bob said, the issue is focus, not only for excellence, but also for survival.

Thanks for listening.