There are basically three main issues or problems that are presently occupying the thinking of most people in the world. Covid, climate change, and, since February, Ukraine. The issue that should be occupying people the most is climate change. If it isn’t properly addressed and soon, it could make life on earth unbearable. The problem is that, although there are some images of weather catastrophes occurring, images of icebergs breaking off, for instance, or flooding rivers overflowing their banks, there aren’t a lot of unique images showing human suffering. By unique I mean images that show events that couldn’t have occurred without climate change. Yes, maybe there are more tornadoes now, more wildfires, and more hurricanes. But the average person is just going to see the images and write off these events as more of the same. The presentation of climate change on television and computer screens is too mediated, too vacuumized, too numbing in today’s world to move most people to try to combat it. So, the paradox is that the issue that presents the most danger to most people is the issue that is taken the least seriously.
Then, of course, there is the matter of Covid. Covid definitely presents unique images. All the people who have ended up in an ICU. All the people who have ended up with strange lasting symptoms as part of what is called long haul. But Covid is not the Bubonic plague which moved through populations very quickly and was lethal much of the time. And somehow, for many people who are numb, Covid is unable to break through the numbness and frighten them enough so that they can get vaccinated. Perhaps it appears in their lives too gradually among the people that they know. For these people, the only way that their numbness is broken through is when they themselves get very sick and end up in the ICU and are on the verge of dying. As we can see, numbness is a kind of sickness in and of itself.
Now we come to Ukraine. What I am going to say here is going to sound very cynical, but, in my opinion, it’s reality. Ukraine presents compelling images of a war that people are going back to World War II for comparisons with regard to a conflict on European soil. But with modern technology, there are so many more images and they come at us as the aggressions are happening. The images are horrific, they are shocking. They break through the mediation and the frictionless processing of the computer screen to break even the most numb person out of his numbness. In other words, Ukraine has been extremely effective in helping people from modern technological society pull out of the experiential vacuum created by the technology. Over and above the terrible tragedy being created for the Ukrainian people, people outside of Ukraine are experiencing the incredibly abrasive stimulation of the Russian invasion as something that intermittently makes them feel very alive.
People’s feelings regarding Ukraine are very complex. On the one hand, most people sincerely feel the pain and anguish attached to this situation. On the other hand, it has provided a vehicle to pull them out of an insidious numbing situation that is gradually destroying them rather than explosively destroying them.
It is hard to compare a catastrophe that is creating such sharp defined discrete physical destruction with a catastrophe that is creating a vacuumized numbing destruction over many many years. Particularly because the catastrophe created by the experiential vacuum is based on a notion that is highly conceptual and highly abstract. Highly mediated. For most people, telling them to focus on trying to feel their unfeeling is something that would simply cause them to scratch their heads in bewilderment. And yet the numbness created by the experiential vacuum of modern technological society is having in its own way as dangerous an effect on human beings as climate change. Numbness is having an extremely harmful effect on people’s capacity to bond with one another. This is particularly evident in young people who, because of all the time they spend in front of their smartphones and computers are not being stimulated to develop the social skills necessary to keep families, friendships, communities and societies alive and vibrant. The whole fabric of human connection is in danger. But unlike physical war, which is an in-your-face abrasive stimulation, the growing experiential vacuum is a stealth stimulation. Or rather, a lack of stimulation. It is creeping up on all of us. Unlike Ukraine, which had a sharp abrasive beginning to shock us out of our numbness. As with opioids, many of us are developing an addiction to news about Ukraine. Our fix of this news helps us to deal with the stealth crisis, of which the vast majority of us aren’t even aware and can’t even identify.