How Tech Unites Us in the Wake of Tragedy

When the devastating news began to break from Paris, I did what most Americans did — I immediately turned to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. In a single moment, the terror that sieged Paris, half a world away, collided with the digital world tucked in the palm of my hand.

Digital communication is often used to plan, coordinate and carry out unspeakable acts of evil, but it also has the power to unite, empower and uplift us in times of need. Twitter provided me the real-time updates on demand and in continuous succession. Facebook let me check on those to whom I’m most closely connected and concerned. And Instagram and Facebook together allowed me to share my concern and support, and show my solidarity with those innocent victims of unnecessary tragedy.

As an American, attacks like these open deep wounds that will never fully heal. Over the last three years I’ve traveled to Paris annually and met with countless tech startups. Last month, I joined Consumer Technology Association (CTA)TM President and CEO Gary Shapiro for lunch with France’s Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron. The way Minister Macron described the burgeoning growth and innovation blossoming within France was thrilling — yet these attacks strike directly at a way of life. They attack freedom broadly disseminated throughout much of the world. And they attack the great promise and unity technology and innovation are bringing into this world.

Innovation has become the glue that binds us — fueling economic prosperity, offering new opportunities for disadvantaged communities, and as was the case in the Paris attacks, providing assurance that friends and family are safe when harm descends on their streets and shops, and collapses on their front doors. And in this way, technology has become a great equalizer — connecting us across not only physical, but also social divides.

For the fifth time in the last year, Facebook activated its Safety Check — a tool that lets users in an area hit by crisis mark themselves and others as safe so that those looking for information about loved ones can become more quickly informed. Safety Check has historically been activated for natural disasters. The Paris attacks mark the first time Facebook has activated the feature in response to violence. The feature was so useful, that Facebook has agreed to activate Safety Check more frequently in disaster situations.

Thanks to Facebook, I was able to know almost instantly who within my social circles were safe. When similar acts of violence befell our shores 14 years ago, the world was a decidedly different place. I’ll never forget walking New York City in Oct. 2001 and seeing the countless “Missing” signs posted to light posts and stop signs throughout lower Manhattan. We lived almost exclusively in an analog world then. Nearly everything about 2001 was analog. We initially learned about the attacks, followed the subsequent news, and communicated with others through and in analog ways. But nearly everything about the attacks in Paris became instantaneously digital. We learned about the attacks, followed developments, and showed our support through digital means. The digitization of information has led to acceleration of data — and never is that more important than when loved ones are in harm’s way.

Twitter’s messaging platform evolved almost instantaneously into a self-organizing platform for coordination. There were hashtags to help individuals in Paris find needed shelter (#PorteOuverte) or those who were stranded in the United States because of cancelled flights (#StrandedInUS). Those seeking information about loved ones included the hashtag #RechercheParis, and there were millions of tweets with the hashtag #prayforparis.

The intersection of technology and solidarity need not end with flag filters and hashtags. As we first saw with the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti, the device on which you are now reading this can be used to make donations to the French Red Cross or other aid organizations. Within moments, your tech device can be used to reach into impacted areas and make a real difference on the lives of individuals thousands of miles away. The lines between the physical world in which we live and the digital world we spend hours navigating have never been so thin. We learn quickly of grievous news. We feel empathy. We show concern. We instantly make donations or perform other services that make a real difference.

We find ourselves in a world filed with heartbreaking calamity. Natural disasters and forces of hatred deliver destruction across the globe. These times are the true test of our character — but I find they also provide a true test of our technologies and innovation.

Certainty, technology provides great joy and entertainment. But the great promise of innovation and the true joy that it can bring, is pouring light into the darkest corners of our world when that ounce of light is needed most.