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If extraterrestrials were to swing by the earth, the first impression they would get might well be cacophony. Last month's Wikileaks release of pager messages sent on 11 September 2001 is testament to this. More than half a million messages, intercepted in New York and Washington, DC during the 24 hours around the World Trade Center attacks, were released in a kind of sync with the day they documented. The 12MB file of text messages can still be downloaded at They are credible and their provenance is undisclosed.

The messages paint a surprising, if chilling, picture. They originate from machines and humans in almost equal proportion. Computers running major parts of the world's financial infrastructure deliver warnings about their faltering connectivity ("08:46:46 Market data inconsistent . . . Cantor
API problem. Trading system offline"). Humans send messages to employers and loved ones. Some call in sick ("06:50:48 This is Mike. I have to take my son to the doctor"), others send saucy greetings ("06:31:26 Got my zebra thongs on!!!"), a few talk about bagels, furniture deliveries. Those who have heard the news send messages of panic: "10:07:46 Don't leave the building . . . Please be careful. Love you - Tiffany". The panic intensifies: "10:35:50 Please pray . . ."

In the background, the twin towers are falling. As the situation gets worse, policemen and members of the secret services send messages to each other: "08:50:50 Bomb detinated in World Trade ctr. Pls get back to Mike Brady w/ a quick assessment of your areas and contact us if anything is needed"; "09:21:44 US bombers are in the air in-route to Clasified targets waiting for strike orders"; "10:24:31 Twinkle and Turq [code names for
George W Bush's daughters] are accounted for and safe".

Human beings with their artefacts, thrashing about to save themselves, or else causing the destruction in the first place. The messages we and our machines sent that day are a new kind of news - raw data news, or sousveillance news, perhaps.

The news portal Reddit dissected the raw material, sifting through the data to distil word frequencies ("please" was top) and the pager numbers of secret service agents. Can we expect this window to open on all future news events? Perhaps not. But on this particular one, it bears a powerful aspect.

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.

This article first appeared in the 07 December 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Boy George