The age of panicMonday, July 11th, 2016
[by Lynn C. Rees]
Ten thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt;
Five thousand tongues applauded when he wiped them on his shirt;
Then while the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip,
Defiance flashed in Casey’s eye, a sneer curled Casey’s lip.
And now the leather-covered sphere came hurtling through the air,
And Casey stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there.
Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped—
“That ain’t my style,” said Casey. “Strike one!” the umpire said.
From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled roar,
Like the beating of the storm-waves on a stern and distant shore;
“Kill him! Kill the umpire!” shouted someone on the stand;
And it’s likely they’d have killed him had not Casey raised his hand.
With a smile of Christian charity great Casey’s visage shone;
He stilled the rising tumult; he bade the game go on;
He signaled to the pitcher, and once more the dun sphere flew;
But Casey still ignored it and the umpire said, “Strike two!”
“Fraud!” cried the maddened thousands, and echo answered “Fraud!”
But one scornful look from Casey and the audience was awed.
They saw his face grow stern and cold, they saw his muscles strain,
And they knew that Casey wouldn’t let that ball go by again.
The sneer is gone from Casey’s lip, his teeth are clenched in hate,
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate;
And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey’s blow.
Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright,
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout,
But there is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has struck out.
During my fifth grade year at mighty Ridgecrest Elementary, a student group I had selective engagement with launched an effort to put a statue of Philo Taylor Farnsworth in the National Statuary Hall found in the United States Capitol building in Washington, D.C. (a city built on a swamp). By act of Congress, each state of the Union could commission two statues of dead local notables to be placed in Statuary Hall. At the time, the great state of Utah had one statue there, a man blessed with the hand of great-great aunt Emeline. After a long process, where my own transient role primarily involved learning that legislative committees are the worst form of sleep aid (except for all the other sleep aids), the thing was done.
A statue of Brother Philo now stands in Statuary Hall, yet another reminder to visitors from the other 49 states of Utah’s innate superiority.
Born in Beaver, Utah but raised in parts northward in Utah irredenta, Brother Philo received a vision one day of how signals could be broadcast through the air and projected onto glass with a particle ray. It was inspired by the back and forth pat he traced when plowing the fields of his family ranch. From this, Brother Philo, later joined by his wife Pem, was led onward to develop the first versions of what would become cathode ray television, a technology only now passing from the scene in the First World. The first person to appear on TV was Sister Pem, who I met once selectively and transiently near the tail end of Brother Philo’s end in marble.
Like many technical innovators, at the beginning Brother Philo was optimistic that the impact of his invention on the condition of mankind would be positive. Like many technical innovators, at the end Brother Philo was optimistic that the impact of his invention on the condition of mankind would be negative. Instead of cultural touchstones like opera and the other fine culture that edified the Rigby set he originally envisioned, Brother Philo lived long enough to see TV bazooka mind-gnawing nonsense onto a humanity with little immunity from the spell of moving visuals in the home.
My grandma, who grew up in a suburb of the mighty metropolis of Salt Lake City, remembered being tormented by one of her family’s roosters when she was very young. This foul creature, spewed from hell, lived only to chase her. Livestock was still commonly raised even behind the homes of urban professionals like my great-grandfather, a general contractor and home builder. The world of her first decade in this life remained one with more obvious links to the experience of her ancestors than our own. It was one in which the human experience of visuals in motion and sound were still largely restricted to what Grandma might have seen if she’d been present with the Mudville ten thousand watching the Mudville nine fall.
The moving visual is hot wired into the brain, which can also be seen as an image processing extension of the eyes. It was originally hyperlocal, optimized to drive hyperlocal reaction in response to hyperlocal triggers. The oldest image processing system humans have, inherited from amphibians, focuses entirely on reacting to movement. Michael Crichton used this system besmirched the honor of Tyrannosaurus rexs by turning this into a critical element in a pivotal scene in his novel Jurassic Park turned.
When TV hit, minds optimized for hyperlocal responses to hyperlocal visual motion were suddenly hit by immediacy without localization. It went straight to the most lizardly of lizard brain parts. Children like myself born into a world of TV inundation were hooked from before conscious memory. Grandma, born into the ancient world, scheduled her day around The Price is Right at 9AM MST and Wheel of Fortune at 6PM. There were words of caution. I remember Grandma telling my brothers and I not to sit so close to her newfangled color TV because the color radiation would ruin our eyes (our black and white TV at home emanated no color radiation). I remember constant encouragements to go outside and breath that fresh outside Salt Lake City air (the city lies is a pollution bowl surrounded by mountains and a big salty pond). Until we turned 10 or so, we had to go to bed by 8PM despite the fact everything interesting that adults (defined as “those older than 10”) got to stay up and watch.
I suppose part of the toxicity of the 196os when sensible health measures such as aerial spraying to keep the hippie population curtailed were relaxed was that it was suddenly being seen in narcotic color. Many a silly hippie was prepped to light up and drop out because the color TV rays my Grandma warned me about were lighting up and dropping out their silly pre-hippy adolescent brains before they ever touched something harder. The transistor radio made the paths straight for American decadence. Color TV pushed it into the abyss. Lower-bound morality, best defined as the abolition of private space, was severely weakened as visual cancer metastasized.
A certain cynicism about TV has grown over my lifetime. It gradually dawned on many that immediacy did not equal truth and vividness did not equal reality. Many were convinced that visual motion was a tool that could be manipulated and the ancient peasant cunning designed to thwart the will of nominal betters revived in some places. The Legion of Stupid retained its legendary ability to man-sea the market for get rich schemes and chia pets. But some were developing increased resistance to the call of the cathode ray and watching TV from further and further away like Grandma warned.
Then came the Internet. Then came another wave and utopian fantasies. Then came the gradual discovery of how to bend these new 20 year old technologies to the old wheel of control, dominance, and exploitation.
The Internet took the illusion of immediacy and boosted its power. Instead of people being incited just by centralized bureaucracies far away, now they could incite each other directly. The distant was suddenly immediate, with more of a realtime “you are there” facade than even TV in its prime with three stations could reach. A sort of moral hazard was created: the seemingly frictionless feel of immediate data pumped over TCP/IP removed the constraints that actual immediacy and actual localism impose. Networked information subsidizes an epidemiology of constant realtime concern, optimized for packet switched networks.
The leaning pressure to magnify events of only local significance into a global contagion that must be dealt with NOW! NOW! NOW! has gathered force. The relevance of the irrelevant has been massively inflated. The availability intrinsic to any species of eternal now has made every itch everywhen into the paramecium that roared. The current president is THE WORST PRESIDENT EVER. Their policies are the WORST POLICIES EVER. A minor colonial conflict like the Iraq intervention is blown up into THE WORST FOREIGN POLICY DISASTER OF ALL TIME. And SO FORTH.
There is nothing new about the darkness that comes in from going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it. What is new is the tax on attention that constant blowing of pinpricks into galaxy-wide tears the fabric of space and time itself imposes. The small has acquired a largeness that it hasn’t earned and doesn’t deserve. It now casts a formidable shadow over larger things that do matter, the darkness of its narcotic dazzle fueled by the false intimacy of data immediacy.
This is not a time with any substantial claim on unusual notoriety. It has no ownership on tragedy, no monopoly on ruin, no death grip on turbulence. What it does have is a new, sharper urgency in panic. The spring in the red button of crisis has been worn clean through by constant frantic pushing every time wolf is cried. Our time has its own pathologies. As in other ages, its wounds should be lanced and cauterized. But when every irritation is a world stopper and every paper cut is a global crisis, the only harvest will be frayed nerves and a growing insensitivity to things that actually matter.
When you can frictionlessly grow a burst pimple into a national ordeal, you live in a world where anything can reach outsized importance. In a world where everything is an unfolding apocalypse, then nothing is significant. You will virtually lynch the umpire over the injustice of that missed call. You will virtually damn the opposing team for thwarting your now, now, now. Casey’s enemies will be your enemies. And there will be no joy in this world because everyone everywhere will convince themselves (again) that they live in a global Mudville.