This quotation from Marshall McLuhan, more than “global village” or “the medium is the message,” exemplifies what a prophet he was. He wrote these words in the 1960s, several decades before the Internet. All he needed was the wired world of phones, radios, and above all television to foresee not only how all other thought would be drowned out by gossip, but how much it would oppress us. For him, redemption was a physical as much as psychic necessity–such thinking was built into his orthodox Catholicism. In baptism or reconciliation, sins are truly washed away, their imprint removed from the universe, an act which is impossible if they are squirreled away in a database somewhere with Luciferian avarice, always ready to be brandished in accusation or sold for gain.
As the record of our daily written communication is fused with our phones, something sinister is happening to our memories of other people, especially those who have died.
William Gibson has described information technology as a form of prosthetic memory, and I agree with him. Written language exists as much to store the past as it does to communicate the present. Accounting records may actually have been the first use of written language, which would make extending human memory writing’s primal function. Inscriptions to memorialize the glory of the powerful dead followed soon after.
Luke O’Neil recently recounted the strangeness of living with his late father’s last text messages. They record banalities, but also invite him to further communication with the dead every day, hovering just at the edge of his attention, like an advertisement. What he and his father tapped out without a thought have, by proximity alone, been asked to bear the weight of mourning, and they are doing a poor job of it.
We have always used written communication to remember the dead. We have had letters and books and tombstone inscriptions, but these are all deliberately chosen and set aside from daily life. Before digital communication, we could choose to remember our dead in a way that was true and relevant. In contrast, our accidental digital memorials are shoved at us every day by the grim mechanics of our technology. We live forever in the horror of Emily Dickinson’s vision of banality at the last moment: “I heard a fly buzz when I died.”
I have written elsewhere about the need to relieve ourselves from the burden of perfect digital memory, and how Marshall McLuhan got it right when he said:
“The future will be an electrically computerized dossier bank – that one big gossip column that is unforgiving, unforgetful and from which there is no redemption, no erasure of early ‘mistakes’.”
Our prosthetic memory is attached to us at too many nerve endings. When we can remember everything, memory is simply noise. We burn out on memory and, by extension, the present moment, which is no less than life itself.
Today, Trump will likely announce his intention to de-certify the Iran Nuclear Deal, which, since 2015, has successfully pulled Iran back from the brink of developing nuclear weapons. This is close to the top story on traditional American news outlets, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. The same goes for international English-speaking publications like The Economist and The Guardian.
Trending on twitter today? Outlandish clothing worn last night by famous people at The Met Gala in New York City.
With the threat of nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula and more world-killing devices in the arsenals of the U.S. and Russia, this type of distraction is—without exaggeration—life threatening.
The moments of the Cold War when the world came close to incineration, both the Cuban Missile Crisis and lesser known incidents like the Andropov Affair of 1983, were managed by people in power whose disciplined, focused attention was wielded skillfully, at just the right moments in time. A few uttered words, a few well-placed phone calls, and in each case the world was saved. Had their attention been less focused, we might all be dead by now. With just minutes to decide whether to launch a strike, the kind of mental focus most of us have trouble mustering in the age of social media is, for a few, a life or death commodity.
Is it inconceivable that Trump’s thumb could wander from the button on his smart phone to the Button in the nuclear briefcase? Are we one “covfefe” away from the end of civilization?
It is true that when Nixon drank in the evenings, his national security advisor asked the staff to run any decisions to launch a nuclear strike by him first. And it is true that Reagan’s dementia may well have set in long before he left office. But these men governed a country which was eloquently and forcefully debating how to comprehend and exercise the full responsibility of possessing nuclear weapons. Public figures like Carl Sagan and Lewis Thomas discussed nuclear weapons in print and on television with a gravitas and sense of responsibility that nobody has time for anymore.
Silicon Valley, which has designed the organs of our current public debate, is not big on either gravitas or responsibility. Mark Zuckerberg, whose media platform played a huge role in the election of the man who controls our nuclear weapons, failed even to show up the first time he was summoned by Congress.
Without much choice, we live in a world of horrors and entertainments which flick past us with an ephemeral slightness that, in the pre-digital era, would have been characterized only by an overheard remark or a bug to be swatted out of our peripheral vision. In matters of life and death, we have only the “recent, careless thoughts” of distant, distracted human beings to rely on, if such worries even occur to us.
Meanwhile, the shock of the people whose courage and attention were just enough to get us through the first decades of life on earth with nuclear weapons, are relegated to the front pages of newspapers and published books where, like the senators on the Capitoline Hill after the fall of the Roman Republic, they speak for nobody.