The following appeared in The Pitt News in 1999.
Photograph taken around that time, in Oakland.
It took me at least two years to learn the shoes are used by drug dealers.
“Look at that,” I said to the guy next to me in the checkout line, pointing to a copy of Time. “It’s Princess Diana on the cover again. The press just eats her up.”
The guy gave me a strange look, before informing me that Princess Diana was, in fact, dead.
“What?” I said, taken aback. “She died?”
I soon learned that she had been dead for six days.
It seemed idiotic at the time. How could I have missed it? How had six days transpired since her fatal car accident without an audible mention of the event? One would think the headlines, the explosive manufacture of biographies, or at least the televisions in shop windows showing the footage of weeping masses would have dropped a significant hint. Don’t we live in the Information Age, after all, when I should be able to know about the car wreck before the police do, even as it’s happening?
And what about the Internet, with its infinite websites commemorating the late princess and her cultural legacy, talking heads disputing the fate of the British royalty, critics bashing the scandal as a paparazzi-fest that eclipsed the real tragedy, the passing of Mother Teresa? What about the email chains paying homage to Diana’s name, the documentaries lining supermarket shelves, the cartoons portraying Prince Charles as an open-mouthed rodent? Surely I might have learned of the death from somewhere, certainly in less than 120 hours.
What excuse did I have for not knowing about such a landmark event? What had I been doing in the meantime?
The truth must be told: I was studying.
The crash occurred in the Fall of 1997, my first month at college and my first of many happy years without a television. I was unaccustomed to email. I laughed at newspapers, and my room in Tower A of Pitt’s campus was resistant to radio transmissions. All my tools of the Information Age were in the shed, as it were.
And yet I had interacted with hundreds of people in those six days—friends, professors, panhandlers—and not a single one had mentioned it. Here was the focal point of the biggest media swarm since O.J. Simpson, and it didn’t even warrant a casual remark. I had to go yogurt shopping for the faintest whisper.
Nowadays, I browse through a couple papers and occasionally catch the evening news. This is how I learned about another world-shattering accident, the plane of John F. Kennedy, Jr. and its unfortunate descent. I learned of it only an hour after Tom Brokaw did. For that evening, I was well informed.
Whatever my friends’ feelings about Kennedy’s death, I never heard them. No one lamented over it, or even brought it up in passing. The least I expected from a catastrophe of this magnitude was an insensitive joke. If I hadn’t been watching the news that week, the event would have slipped my notice altogether. Years later, I’d wonder why John’s name no longer headed the articles of George.
Then again, what was there to say? Every news station in the United States felt obliged to cover the search, arguing ad nauseum which part of the plane probably touched down first. When the helicopters came up with bodies, everyone from Coast Guard pilots to President Clinton wanted to express just how terrible this was (as if someone had mistaken death for a good thing).
Between July 18, when the plane actually crashed, and July 23, when the burial at sea took place, the victims were more famous than if they had miraculously survived. Pundits couldn’t shut up about it. Archivists dug up Danny Farrell’s epoch-making portrait of John-John saluting and showed it off like baby pictures from their own wallets. Suddenly, everyone was an expert on the morals of the age. After all these reports and opinions, who needed small talk about it?
But for people who live in a world of limited media, the din of human voices is getting softer. Thousands can die in an unheard-of Turkish earthquake because the assumption is that everyone is already tired of hearing about it. The media have limited us to two options: the deafening roar of the Information Age or the silence of mere human interaction.