The Medium Warps the Message Straight to Our Extinction

I’ve been working lately on an article about Extinction Rebellion, the direct action movement that emerged out of England in 2019 and has since gone worldwide to spread the message that radical civil disobedience is the only way to alter our deranged course toward climate catastrophe.

XR, as the movement is known, espouses a noble cause, and its co-founder, Roger Hallam, is a radical who announces with clarion voice that system change can only happen if enough people organize together to force it to happen.

Now, reader, traipse blithely across the internet looking for articles about Mr. Hallam, and you will find, for example, this sympathetic and informative piece published at Vox.com on Jan 14 of this year.   It’s an interview with Hallam.

Try – I dare you – to read the interview.

For as you scroll through the text, you will find that your mind wanders in the debilitating way that Nicholas Carr described in his 2011 book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains.

The Shallows is a deconstruction of the mental disability – one of constant distraction, inability to focus, inability to think deeply, to ponder and mull – that results from the typical reading platform on the internet in which hyperlinks and blinking images abound.

Forget about Extinction Rebellion and the fight for a livable planet for our children; forget about Hallam’s insights.

Instead: constant flashing video snippets alongside the Vox interview with him advertise the network premiere of a series on ABC called “For Life.”  I have no idea what the series is about, nor do I care to know what it’s about.   As I attempted in vain to finish the interview, I came to wish for a slow death for the producers of “For Life” and all the people involved in it.

Point is: The medium by which information is imparted, as Marshall McLuhan informed us decades ago, often matters a whole lot more than the information itself.

One sits in front of a screen trying to understand issues of immense importance for our collective future, as expressed by Hallam, but it is impossible to do so with a clear mind – because of advertising that provides the revenue that pays Vox’s reporter to conduct its interview with him.

In the end, though, it’s not a matter of profiteering advertisements, however  detestable these are.  Nicholas Carr argues, rightly, that every internet article, published by a for-profit or a non-profit or fly-by-night self-published ranters (yours truly), contains within it the seeds of distraction when it links to something else.

The bind in which we find ourselves is the obvious one: that the very system of communication we are forced (or, more accurately, acquiesce) to employ to share the needed knowledge to spread rebellion against the status quo – the status quo that leads to catastrophe – might in fact make organizing that rebellion impossible to achieve.   (The technophiles will cry, What about Facebook?  What about Twitter? Well, what about them?  Nothing significant in the power relations in global society has changed with their advent — nothing except that rebellions against entrenched power are now more easily surveilled and squelched under the all-seeing eye of the panopticon.)

Granted, I have no suggestion for an alternative.  Here am I, writing an article on the godforsaken internet, communicating to you on a screen, and my article contains within it a link, which surely you have clicked on – and that clicking is just one example of the distracted imbecilic mindlessness that besets us broadly as an advanced technological civilization and that will lead ultimately, I believe, to the self-immolation of humankind.

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

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