November 1963 Through the Lens of the Internet Age

technologyWalk past a newsstand and you can’t escape it. The 50th Anniversary of JFK’s assassination is on the cover of every magazine from Time to People. It’s a tragedy that I still can’t get my head around. And with everyone from Tom Brokaw to Kennedy’s former aides offering perspective this week, there’s little I can add to the commentary from a historical perspective.

But I’m gripped by a few thoughts on the difference today’s technology would have made if it had existed on that day in Dallas.

The first involves smartphones. Ask anyone about whether there is a film of the assassination, and Abraham Zapruder’s name will quickly come up. The dressmaker made what is believed to be the only complete film of the crime of the century. Imagine that same scene today—so many current events are observed through the lens of the phone. I recently saw photos of the last two Papal announcements. In 2005, when Pope Benedict was announced, Vatican City was a sea of faces. In 2013, it was a sea of phones. With a camera-phone capturing every angle of Dealey Plaza, would we still wonder whether anyone was on the grassy knoll?

Of course, smartphones are only one part of our photographic technology. Today, video cameras exist throughout many public spaces. (There are more than 6 million CCTV cameras in the UK.) Countless privately-operated cameras watch our ATMs, store fronts, and parking lots. A critical break in the Boston Marathon bombing case came from the examination of footage from the cameras outside Lord and Taylor’s department store. Today, there would no doubt be cameras on the Dallas buildings, and in buildings such as the school book depository. Would Oswald’s run down the stairs be captured on a security camera?

Another impactful difference would come from the World Wide Web itself, on so many levels. For example, the web is the ultimate dissemination tool for conspiracy theories. Fifty years later, a search for the term “JFK Assassination Conspiracy” turns up 3.8 million hits on Google. Imagine if that type of communication was happening in the days and weeks following the assassination. Would we know more, or less? Consider that the crucial frames of the Zapruder film weren’t made public until nearly five years after that day in Dallas. And who would the mainstream media use as a source—the Warren Commission or the Drudge Report?

Finally, the Snowden revelations remind us how digital monitoring can cut both ways. There’s plenty of reason to be concerned about the level of government surveillance in our lives. But it does help minimize the possibility that someone like Lee Harvey Oswald would be unable to travel to Moscow, pass out pro-Castro leaflets, and purchase a rifle without arousing some attention. Whether that’s positive or negative for our civil liberties is certainly debatable, but I have little doubt that it would have had an impact on the events of the day.

I’ve got an easy answer to the apocryphal question of, “Where were you when you heard about JFK?” I wasn’t born yet. And neither were the technologies mentioned here—but imagine if they had been.

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