9/11 pager messages

This week’s column now live at the New Statesman. Unedited copy below, final version here.

If extraterrestrial life were to swing by, the first impression they got of our blue-green planet might well be cacophony. Last month’s Wikileaks release of pager messages sent on September 11 2001 is one testament to this. Over half a million messages, intercepted in New York and Washington DC for the 24 hours surrounding the World Trade Centre attacks, were released by Wikileaks, broadcast in a kind of sync with the day they documented. The 12MB file of text messages can still be downloaded from the Wikileaks website. They are credible and their provenance is undisclosed.

The messages paint a surprising, if chilling, picture. They are sent by both machines and humans, almost in equal proportion. Computers running major parts of the globe’s financial infrastructure deliver warnings about their faltering connectivity (“08:46:46 Market data inconsistent…Cantor API problem Trading system offline”). Humans deliver messages to employers and loved ones. Some call in sick (“06:50:48 THIS IS MIKE. I HAVE TO TAKE MY SON TO THE DOCTOR… ”), others send saucy greetings (“06:31:26 Got my zebra thongs on!!!”), a few talk about bagels, furniture deliveries. Those that have heard the news, send messages of panic – “10:07:46 Don’t leave the building… Please be careful. Love you – Tiffany”. The panic intensifies: “10:35:50 PLEASE PRAY…”

In the background, heard quietly but consistently, the Twin Towers fall. policemen and members of the secret services send messages to each other as the situation escalates: “08:50:50 BOMB DETINATED (sic) IN WORLD TRADE CTR. PLS GET BACK TO MIKE BRADY W/A QUICK ASSESSMENT OF YOUR AREAS AND CONTACT US IF ANYTHING IS NEEDED”; “09:21:44 US bombers are in the air in-route to Clasified (sic) targets waiting for strike orders.”; “10:24:31 TWINKLE AND TURQ (codenames for George Bush’s daughters) ARE ACCOUNTED FOR AND SAFE”.

Humans with their artefacts, crashing about to save themselves or else causing this destruction in the first place. The messages we and our machines sent that day are a new kind of news – raw data news, or sousveillance news, perhaps. Like spies, the community news portal Reddit dissected the raw material (tinyurl.com/y999cyj), sifting through the data by hand, and devising scripts to extract word frequencies (“please” came out top) or the pager numbers of all the Secret Service agents. Can we expect this window to open on all future news events? Perhaps not. But on this particular one, it bears a powerful aspect.

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