About 60 years ago, Marshall McLuhan observed in a path-breaking study, THE MECHANICAL BRIDE, that a modern newspaper was among the 20th Century’s astonishing artifacts. Its front page offers an implicit, daily refreshed glimpse of the world, a “picture” composed of portions of a half-dozen or more reports aligned in columns, each introducing information concerning local, national and international events, juxtaposed but affording no sense of inter-relation or suggestion of relative magnitudes of importance beyond the mere fact of their diurnal simultaneity. It is not history we read but a surreal collage of chronicles introduced by a blaze of headlines followed by some few hundred words of more or less coherent accurate narration petering out on another page raddled with ads for consumer goods and services, among which remnants of other reports continued from other pages are scattered as filler. The only common denominator to what appears on a front page is its date of publication.
Only in recent years have I begun to comprehend what an extraordinary thing it must be to unfold a newspaper at the breakfast table and commence its perusal — the while eating with a citizen’s iron calm: buttering the toast, cracking the boiled egg necessary to one’s healthy day, and pouring a cup of coffee with a steady wrist. Some weeks ago my wife and I sat engaged quietly in that daily ritual. Our youngest grandchild appeared in the doorway and murmured a few words as we were offering one another a running commentary on the news of the day by exchanging headlines and reading out choice bits from diverse articles. “What did you say?” I asked him. In a low, tremulous voice he repeated his question: “What are the terrors for today?”
We set our papers down and looked at him, startled by the expression he wore. His eyes were open wide, staring fixed and unseeing. Suddenly I understood. So immersed were we always in our morning routine, we’d never noticed he had been listening, day after day, to our recital of the news. How grotesque it must have sounded to a child, and how frightening. Outdoors, the sun of Southern California sparkles on the watered green lawn; within, the house is tranquil. And here in this pleasant kitchen sit two grownups, his grandparents, filling the day’s bright first hour with descriptions of disasters around the globe, massacres marching on to catastrophes and death by the thousands. And then these same grownups fold their papers, rise smiling and replete from the table to drive off to work as usual.
Who can know which anxieties about what disasters or threats of destruction imminent preoccupy our grandson’s thoughts as he heads for school after such briefings on the course of our world? To think uncounted millions of people begin their day with a glance at the front page! Surely that is unremarkable; yet it is a heroic thing to do. That we withstand the terrible news usually laid out on the front page must owe something to a modest, steadfast heroism we all have in common. And yet sooner or later, there will come a headline or two that reveals such ordinary heroism in a true light: we live in a permanent state of rational delirium. Sooner or later our eyes fall upon a news caption that seems to announce our immanent fate. Probably it will not be spelled out in fiery letters as clear as those that Dante read over the Gate of Hell: ABANDON ALL HOPE ….
We had no ready answer for him then, except silence. Any rehearsal would have been no more than a litany of the obscene. After pondering what could be replied were our grandson to stand again at the threshold of the kitchen and again ask his fearful question, I thought of a short news item I had once spotted buried in the back pages. It was portentous and remained in memory like a persistent ringing in the ears for well over a third of a century.
In the 1970s Soviet cosmologists mounted a listening post for radio signals originating from somewhere in the galaxy. Instead of hunting in certain directions selected by using probability algorithms, they chose to focus on the entire celestial hemisphere, scanning it once round every twenty-four hours. They intended to tune in on our whole island universe we call the Milky Way. After ten years, the Tass news agency reported that the results of their long survey were negative. A Los Angeles Times headline declared: “Doubt Civilizations Exist: Soviets Pick Up No Signals From Stars.” Their scientists concluded there are no “supercivilizations” out there, and probably not even any “primitive” ones either. The Soviets supposed reasonably enough that if there were any civilized beings at all, then advanced societies would have had to have developed: “If we fail to discover them, this means that there are no such civilizations in existence. And the same conclusion is suggested because of the absence of any trace visits to Earth by extraterrestrial beings.”
Vsevolod Troitsky, the director of that project, opined that there was some slim chance that civilizations might exist but lack man’s current technology: “Evidently their level is not so far high enough to enable them to spread throughout the galaxy or to start sending powerful signals.”
Distracted by or absorbed in today’s mounting and intensifying terrorism, any speculations and ruminations about possible “encounters” seldom rises to our consciousness. Nevertheless, what that Soviet trial suggested is that humanity is alone on Terra, rolling around at the edge of the Milky Way. Americans once set foot on the moon. Robot wagons crawl about and poke at the sands of Mars. Venus has been probed. Small satellites have rocketed to Saturn and circled Jupiter, and older ones have now crossed beyond the edge of the sun’s outflung wind. Yet the chance that we — humanity — will ever leave our solar system is so remote as to amount to almost nothing. Popular science-fiction fantasies and film fables with spectacular special effects may exhibit a yearning for other worlds; but these are only transient commodities for mass entertainment. Humanity is alone; it has always been alone with itself; and it will remain utterly alone.
If we can set our feats of engineering in perspective, we may come to realize that there are necessary adjustments our societies must make; that each one of us will have to make, not merely to preserve human existence and the planet, but adjustments of morale, so as to acknowledge the way things now are, and to face our life here. Can it be done? Here is an exercise that may help.
First, accept that humanity is alone in this vast part of the universe, our galaxy. Turn to the front page of the newspaper opened before you. Now, read.