This xkcd comic bugged me when I first saw it, but I didn’t give it too much thought at first because its dismissive approach to media is quite familiar and a bit tiresome:

On reflections, however, and in combination with other nonsense I’ve been reading, the irksome joke/not joke hasn’t faded from my thinking. So I’ll be very unhip and respond without the appropriate ironic detachment that modern life demands of us, where everything is cool and chill and like, dude, whatever ….

The xkcd comic utilizes a form of the Chicken Little argument, relying on a protracted timeline (1840 to 2015) to mask a very real sky-is-falling effect occurring in the world, though slowly enough to escape the attention of most people. Specifically, it’s that our media landscape has grown increasingly immersive, omnipresent, and hyperpalatable, with the result that many people simply cannot disengage from electronics during waking hours. So it’s not the sky that’s falling but darkness (shades of the Dark Ages), and it’s enclosing our minds.

What used to be called simply media became mass media in the early 20th century, which led in turn to the rise of mass man and mass society. It’s true that the world has not (yet) come crashing down around us, but evidence is mounting that regular folks are transforming into stupid, thoughtless zombies. There are precious few places one can go anymore to avoid the dull stares on others’ faces, typically bathed in the cold, blue glare of the screen.

Slavish devotion to and compulsive updating of one’s Facebook page is a good example of unwitting forfeiture. The FB user, subscribed for free, is not the intended customer but is instead the product being delivered to the real paying customer: advertisers. That unwitting bargain is admittedly part of the business model behind other, older media (radio and TV broadcasting and newspaper and magazine publishing), but the user arguably gets more value and responsiveness out of older media without having to divulge anything personal.

Far from describing the progression of media having no discernible negative effects, as the xkcd remark “take a hint” would have one believe, the criticisms (including the unfinished last pane) are all quite literally true (without ad absurdum exaggeration), though ironically, we’re too absorbed in our phones and tablets to notice. Our minds are ebbing away, as we give away our attention for baubles and trinkets, outsource our memory, and rely on external processing of mental tasks we used to be able to perform for ourselves. Whatever authentic self formed on the way to adulthood is now ceded to corporate-controlled media and social networks. We’re colonized, commodified, and dehumanized; the youngest and most vulnerable are frankly unable to sense it precisely because they’re not yet fully formed and know little of the world before 24/7/365 connectedness. Adults who might have been counted on to be smarter about media ecology have failed to react with suitable alarm. Some, such as the writer of xkcd, see nothing going on, but one might expect some bias considering that an audience for the comic is exploited through media itself.

I’ve blogged quite a bit about consciousness, loss of self, and media ecology. My book blogging through Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary is probably most on point, but plenty of other blog posts explore what is clearly (to me, at least) becoming a radical paradigm shift. Despite the immediacy of the matter, the subtlety of the ideas and the fact that the subject is a moving target pretty much guarantee that anyone reading this can easily conclude “move along, nothing to see.” I’m alarmed, but I can’t convince anyone else to be.


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