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Screenlandia and the Mass Man

Every human in my immediate view is hunched over a screen.  It is something out of a horror movie.

You who have wandered in the backcountry and for even a few days have been free of the digital tyranny will know that feeling, when you come back to your fellow man and are confronted with what look like machined abortions of men – and when you too become one of them, chained in the unreality of the zeitgeist.

You who’ve been among trees and grasses and flowers, who have ears for the ululating soil in the green light that filters the sun and fixes its energy, and have felt your animal self, naked, alive to the five senses, who have seen colors that seem hallucinated, impossible to reproduce by the technical hand; you ecologists, botanists, biologists who have heard the calls, watched the ways, witnessed in surprise and wonder the distinctions, the differences, the oddness of the countless species, and floated on the surf in your mind’s eye, looked in upon the waters, and seen teeming there in the bosom of the real, in the tumult of the water, the raw complexity of the will to life, the agency of the world that birthed us – the only world-reality worth caring about.

You know you’re back on the small planet of men when the screens take over, when the screens warp us in their falsifying, simplifying image.  In the airport, we grip our screen telecommunication devices.  The STDs give comfort, functioning as pacifiers for an infantilized race.   The STDs demand we all hold them in the same manner, head down, prostrate before the god Goog, swiping, transfixed, looking exactly alike and seemingly innumerable in our sameness, in the airport’s halls, lounges, restaurants, bars, gates, up and down the gangways, in the bathrooms, at the cab stands, and on the roads out to the cities that we’ve built to the measure of our sameness (glass, steel, concrete – repeat across continents).

And on the walls, everywhere you look, even in the back of a cab, more screens, of the corporate ilk.  The humans on CNN, MSNBC et al, also have the character of simulacra, mass-produced in an underground factory, and you begin to doubt they exist outside the wind-up-toy mediated environment.  The robots-cum-people gesticulate, mouth, emote – the sound is off, who knows what they’re saying, and who cares, for if it’s on a corporate screen it’s probably not worth hearing.  By turns they are smiling, coy, worried, uplifted, delighted, sorrowful, sweet: a bravura attempt at biological animal humanness.

Recall the scene in Huxley’s Brave New World when the “savage” John, the outsider brought to witness the marvels of civilization, gets a taste of what it means to engineer “beauteous mankind” as his mother lies dying in a hospital ward:

A sudden noise of shrill voices made him open his eyes and, after hastily brushing away the tears, look round. What seemed an interminable stream of identical eight-year-old male twins was pouring into the room. Twin after twin, twin after twin, they came – a nightmare.

Their faces, their repeated face – for there was only one between the lot of them – puggishly stared, all nostrils and pale goggling eyes. Their uniform was khaki. All their mouths hung open. Squealing and chattering they entered. In a moment, it seemed, the ward was maggoty with them. They swarmed between the beds, clambered over, crawled under, peeped into the television boxes, made faces at the patients…

[He] looked round him, knew what he saw – knew it, with a sinking sense of horror and disgust…the nightmare of swarming indistinguishable sameness.

You get a flight back to New York, city of the unreal, like all cities an ecological parasite sucking the blood out of the hinterlands, laying waste to ecosystem complexity, and with the sole goal of producing a monochromatic thing of dubious worth we call, with puerile pride, “culture.”  There you meet with the “progressive community,” who for the most part have their STDs stapled to eyeball and anus and parts in between, who think catching a ride with Uber is a sign of progress.  This will end someday, this benighted preening civilization, and it won’t be soon enough.

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Christopher Ketcham is the author of the forthcoming “This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism and Corruption are Ruining the American West,” out next year from Viking-Penguin.  He can be reached at cketcham99@mindspring.com.

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