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Offline: news in free fall

Offline: news in free fall


Experiencing Felix Baumgartner's jump without the internet

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paul 1020
paul 1020

On Sunday afternoon I called a friend to see if he wanted to go shopping. He informed me that he was watching the jump. I flipped out, hung up the phone, and sprinted down to my coffee shop, which has CNN on most days.

CNN wasn't showing the jump when I tuned in. For a moment I was scared Felix and co. had scrapped the jump again.

I think it’s important for you to get into my knowledge-starved headspace here: I had no way of knowing if they’d called it off until CNN told me. I didn’t even remember the jump until the phone call, I was at a coffee shop so I couldn’t change the channel, and asking someone else to find the info would be violating the rules of my experiment. So my eyes just stayed locked on the screen, hoping. I was a dog looking for scraps. I panted between gulps of iced coffee.

Finally they showed Felix, twenty miles up, hung from that enormous balloon. The anchor (whose name wasn't "Wolf Blitzer," and therefore unmemorable) explained the jump in terms a kindergartner could understand, and then she'd toss to an "expert" who would explain the jump in terms a second grader could understand. Sometimes they'd split-screen with Felix in his capsule, or Joe Kittinger in mission control. (They didn't actually explain that it was Kittinger in mission control, I read that the morning after in the newspaper).

Someone at my coffee shop asked me what we were watching, and I explained.

"Oh my god, oh my god. Really? Oh my god," she said.

Nobody ever says "oh my god, oh my god" on CNN, though one time I heard a co-anchor compare the nerves of the VP debaters to those of a "hooker in church."

"Okay, take us through this from day one," the anchor prompted the jumping-from-space expert. And they'd begin again. The record set by Kittinger 50 years ago, Baumgartner's base jumps, his 18 mile practice run. And then she'd ask "What does this mean?" They'd talk about the experimental space suit, the space tourism industry, etc. They always said "commercial venture" instead of "Red Bull."

The anchor kept talking as the door to the capsule opened, but her voice turned into buzzing in my ears. I felt like I was on a rollercoaster plunge. My stomach was in my chest.

A young couple and their baby were watching with us in the coffee shop. "Look at the spaceman!" the mom said to the child. I prayed that this would be passé when the child was grown. We'd all jump 24 miles to work every day. Today was step one.

Felix grabbed the handles, pulled himself upright, and looked down at the earth. Joe said "Our guardian angel will take care of you," and then Felix said something, but I couldn't hear what it was. The CNN anchor was talking over him.

She was talking. I couldn't hear what he was saying. What did he say? How can I ever know what this means? What did he say?

And then, before he could shove off, they cut away from the feed

And then, before he could shove off, they cut away from the feed. They went full screen on the anchor and her expert. My mouth fell open. For a split second I thought Felix had died. Then the anchor flippantly mentioned that he had jumped, and was currently falling.

"In case you're just joining us..."

Thirty seconds later, the mom pulled up a live stream of the jump on her iPhone, and the couple watched the freefall while the baby sat bored and unimpressed. The man cupped the phone to his ear, to hear better. They didn't tell me what was happening, and I didn't ask what was worth listening to — I learned later that Felix was talking to mission control the whole way down. I still don't know what about.

For four minutes I was prisoner inside the glossy CNN studio. The anchor and expert made noises but said nothing, while somewhere over New Mexico a man plummeted past the sound barrier.

"If I had a gun I would shoot the TV," I said in truth, to no one.

The night of the 2000 election, my family slowly went off to bed one by one as I stayed glued to the TV. Starved for information, I'd flip between the major three networks — we only had a bunny ear antenna — but I'd invariably return to Peter Jennings. All night long he kept a sense of humor, while Dan Rather looked scared and Tom Brokaw looked tired.

Jennings staged that November night for me, kept me warm, told me everything would be okay.

But the stage has changed. The internet is now the principle mode. On the internet, "knowing" means knowing everything. Complete world knowledge — or the illusion of it. By 2008 I had a dozen political sites on rapid refresh as the votes came in. In 2012, if the television cuts away from the spaceman, a mom's iPhone can pick up the slack in 30 seconds. Google will get better, iPhones will get better, and her child will watch the first humans on Mars in perfect, 4k, glasses-free 3D.

CNN said that for "obvious reasons" they weren't showing the jump.

The "obvious reasons" were that Felix could die. Would it make it less tragic, less horrible, if they didn't show it live? Maybe it would. But the internet would show it, and the internet is the new truth.

On the internet, "knowing" means knowing everything

Before showing Felix land, they told me he had landed. "He hit the ground running." Then they showed him hitting the ground running. Over the next half hour they slowly revealed what had happened during those four minutes of darkness. They showed it backwards, like how sports reporters write about baseball games. They mentioned he had spun wildly at one point in the jump, and fifteen minutes later they showed the spin.

I jotted down my frustrations, drew a picture of Felix gazing down at Earth from his capsule, and went shopping with my friend.

But my friend (who is also my editor and chief Yelp-replacement), who had seen everything unfold live, told me that Red Bull had its own narrator. I'm sure he or she wasn't as annoying as my CNN anchor, but he still "mediated" in his way. My friend also told me he himself had closed Twitter, silencing its hundreds of mini-mediators, and just focused on the stream's version of events.

And I can't ignore the fact that the entire jump was a corporate-sponsored event, a "commercial venture" in CNN parlance. When Felix's family celebrated, they were all wearing Red Bull apparel. A moment after Felix landed, a Red Bull photographer ran out of the Red Bull chopper and got to him first. Red Bull's primary concern seemed to be the documentary it would produce based on this nation-mesmerizing event.

On Monday night I spoke with my brother, an avid skydiver. He said the running joke in the skydiving community is that "if Red Bull offers you a sponsorship, you should probably be doing something safer." That wasn't what I wanted to hear. I wanted Felix to be praised as a national hero, not as my generation's Evel Knievel. "It's cool, but what purpose does it serve?" He forced me to think, to worry, to consider. Thanks a lot, bro.

The internet is mediated; it's just HBO's Game of Thrones to CBS's Big Bang Theory. They both have a message, but one of those messages can encompass graphic decapitations. On the internet, a political agenda can break the Monica Lewinsky scandal in the face of a timid "mainstream media," or perpetuate Birther-ism in the face of "the truth." Our new stage for understanding our world isn't perfect, it just has more room on it.

The whole time I watched the TV on Sunday, CNN never told me what Felix said before he jumped. As if it needed to be whitewashed of meaning, like the phrases "commercial venture" and "obvious reasons." Maybe he said "Red Bull gives you wiiiiings!"

Here it is, as reported in my mainstream national newspaper:

"Sometimes you have to go up really high to understand how small you are."

Paul Miller will regularly be posting dispatches from the disconnected world on The Verge during his year away from the internet. He won't be reading your comments, but he'll be here in spirit.