Like many people of a certain age, I remember exactly where I was and how I learned about President Kennedy’s assassination. However, my experience of the rest of that time was very different from most others.
At the time I was in my sixth grade class at Balboa Elementary School in the Panama Canal Zone. It was shortly after lunch, and I was still cooling off after playing outside in the tropical heat. I remember our school principal, a slight, middle-aged woman, came to the door of our classroom. She spoke briefly with our teacher and then announced to our class that President Kennedy had been shot and killed in Dallas, Texas. I remember the boy in front of me rather dramatically snapped his pencil in two on hearing the news.
For most folks in the U.S., news about Kennedy’s assassination came first from TV and radio reports, like that by Walter Cronkite. Word quickly spread to those who weren’t watching TV or listening to the radio at the time. I don’t know how our principal had learned of the assassination, but I know for sure television was not involved. That is because in 1963 there were no satellite transmissions of TV signals; those of us living in Panama at that time had never seen a live TV broadcast from the States.
Over the next four days everyone in the U.S. was glued to their TV sets for the first-ever continuous live coverage of a major news event. For the rest of that Friday, they learned what the President and First Lady had done before the tragic event and followed news about the search for and capture of a suspect in the crime; on Saturday they watched reports on the investigation of Lee Harvey Oswald and saw preparations for the President’s funeral in Washington; on Sunday they watched in horror as Oswald was gunned down by Jack Ruby in the basement of the Dallas jail; and on Monday they watched the presidential funeral and mourned the country’s loss.
In Panama, we didn’t see those events and reports on TV.
Of the three TV networks in Panama at the time, only one – the Southern Command Network (SCN) – broadcast in English. SCN also had a radio station which did offer live news coverage through some form of cable connection between the U.S. and SCN.
Without live TV coverage, SCN did the next best thing: it broadcast the radio coverage over the TV network. However, without live images to offer, they placed on the screen a static image of what looked like a gravestone: a granite-looking background with President Kennedy’s name on it, underneath which were his dates of birth and death. So we spent three days – Friday through Sunday – watching TV but hearing radio reports while looking at a mock-up of a headstone.
Somehow, on Monday SCN did manage to broadcast a live feed of the funeral procession and services. I don’t know what wizardry was involved for that, but I do know the event felt different – more immediate – when we finally could see what was going on.
Finally seeing what we knew everyone in the States had been seeing all along gave me a feeling that’s hard to describe. I felt as if we had been somehow cut off from this huge event that everyone else had been experiencing directly, and then we’d been allowed to join things at the very end. I realized that my experience was different from people in the States. They shared a bond created by a collective memory of images: the motorcade in Dallas before it reached Dealey Plaza, cars speeding off immediately after the shots rang out, reporters waiting for news outside the hospital, Oswald being gunned down by Jack Ruby, and the First Lady kissing the flag on the casket as it lay in state at the Capitol rotunda. Although our TV had been on and we’d heard them reported, we hadn’t seen those things.
The television coverage of this event was the first of its kind, and it would be years before I would ever hear of the “global village.” But I sensed then that something unique and important had happened, which created a bond among those who had experienced it. And those of us overseas had not been a part of it. We were “out of the loop.”
Fast forward to the present and things are very different.
In today’s world everyone is in the loop. What with the Internet, satellite telecommunications, and cell phone networks (among other things), anyone anywhere can know what’s going on anywhere else in the world. And everyone sees stuff happening at precisely the same time. As I’ve written before, when Barack Obama was declared the winner of the 2008 presidential election, celebrations broke out simultaneously all around the world. Given what I experienced back in 1963, I found that amazing.
So much readily available information has affected many of our political, cultural and economic institutions. Before, they had been the gatekeepers, controlling what people knew and when they knew it. Today, things are often out of their control. Does a company have problems with a defective product? It’s only a matter of time before word gets out. Is the Church having problems with misbehaving priests? Again, it’s only a matter of time before everyone knows about it. The same thing goes for wayward politicians and dysfunctional government programs.
But this change goes beyond just knowing more about what’s going on. In today’s interconnected world, it’s easy for like-minded (or like-outraged) people to get together and act on their awareness. There are many options available, from commenting on a forum or blog to using technology to start a movement either for or against something that’s happening.
President Kennedy once said, “In a time of turbulence and change, it is more true than ever that knowledge is power.” Today, everyone has access to that power.
In many ways this dispersal of power has overwhelmed the world as we have known it. The old world order has collapsed as borders crumble, things spin out of control and many familiar institutions appear incapable of reacting effectively to the problems they face. Today individuals and tiny groups can wreak havoc all out of proportion to their apparent size and influence.
It all feels very unsettling and disturbing.
But it’s important to keep in mind that this is always the way things feel in a time of great change. This was the case in the early days of the Industrial Revolution. And it was the case in the early 20th century, when physics was going through a revolution of its own. As physics pioneer Werner Heisenberg explained at the time:
The violent reaction on the recent development of modern physics can only be understood when one realizes that here the foundations of physics have started moving; and that this motion has caused the feeling that the ground would be cut from science.
The key thing to remember here is that the change and uncertainty we’re experiencing today is not the result of some nefarious plot. It is instead a natural result of the great changes in technology we’ve witnessed over the last fifty years. Those changes in technology, in turn, are the result of great changes in scientific knowledge that developed during the 20th century – and that continue today.
If we are to survive as individuals, businesses and governments, we need to come to terms with the way things are now, rather than the way they were at some point in a warmly-remembered past. We can mourn what we’ve lost by this change, much as we once mourned the loss of an inspirational young president. But we must recognize that the past is gone, and it’s time to live in today’s strange new world.