At Once Distant and Very Close: The Millions Interviews Bill McKibben

October 17, 2017 | 4 books mentioned 9 min read

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Bill McKibben planned a strange follow-up to The End of Nature, his bestselling 1989 debut and the first mass-market American book to articulate the crisis of global warming. Working with volunteer customers of the Fairfax, Va., cable television system—at the time, the nation’s largest—McKibben collected VHS tapes of every program and commercial that aired on May 3, 1990. In the months that followed, McKibben watched every moment of television broadcast that day, comparing the world he saw on television to the world he encountered during his time hiking and camping in the woods of upstate New York. The Age of Missing Information beautifully juxtaposes those two distinct experiences, forgoing comprehensive or chronological coverage for a series of linked essays that scrutinize the cultural assumptions that television reinforces.

covercoverThe Age of Missing Information is clearly invested in McKibben’s environmentalist ethic, but the book has more on its mind. Twenty-five years after its publication in 1992, The Age of Missing Information is both an incredibly detailed artifact of American mass culture in the early 1990s and a provocative meditation on the gap between information and knowledge in our current world. This August, I spoke to McKibben, the founder of 350.org, by phone about his memories of writing the book, Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, podcasting, and solar-powered television. McKibben’s first novel, Radio Free Vermont, comes out this November from Blue Rider Press.

The Millions: In the summer and fall of 1990—27 years ago now—you were watching television eight hours a day, for months and months. Do you remember anything from that time? Is there anything burned into your brain in terms of specific shows or commercials?

Bill McKibben: Of all of the 2,400 hours of TV that I watched, really almost the only shows that stuck in my mind as memorable were an hour that Bill Moyers did on some poets and an episode of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, leading me to think that those are probably two of the great broadcasters of our time.

TM: I guess that supports an argument that quality television can actually send a memorable message.

BM: Beyond that, I have sort of vague impressions; certainly The Brady Bunch is stuck forever in my head, but I have a feeling that has to do as much with adolescence as with that project.

TM: So it must have been six or eight months that you devoted to this project, just in terms of the watching television stage?

BM: It was actually the better part of a year, because I had somewhere close to 2,000 hours of TV recorded. It took a long time. Of course, I was watching TV like seven or eight hours a day and thinking this was crazy, but as my wife pointed out at one point, it wasn’t that much more TV than most Americans were watching at that point.

TM: Did it have an impact on your emotional well-being?

BM: Yes—I was grouchy and cranky and out of sorts. One effect was, of course, that I never felt the need to watch TV again, and we got rid of it as soon as that experiment was over. And that lasted for a kind of blissful 10 years or so, until the Internet came along to fill the same mental space. So now too much of my day is spent addictively doing email and Twitter and similar things that I think fill some of the same spot.

TM: What do you think the specific connection is there? It seems like your project would be impossible to do today, and in a sense that’s true, but in another sense, as you say, most of us are already spending eight hours a day engaged with a virtual space or some other sort of media.

BM: I don’t know if you could do the project today. Even then, we were right at the edge of the end of a kind of agreed, shared idea of a popular culture. And now, that seems…everybody’s got a million ways. One of the things I was trying to come to terms with was that we had gone from the three television stations of my youth to 100, which then seemed an incomprehensible number. Now of course even a mediocre cable system has many more than that.

TM: I was a young kid during the period you wrote about, but I do have a pretty clear memory of 1990 and your book really captures my impression of the world as it seemed to a kid watching too much TV. It seems like it would be almost impossible to generalize in that way about “the culture” in 2017.

BM: I think that’s correct, but I think it wouldn’t be impossible to generalize about the effect on us. If there’s one message that comes through in that book, I hope, it’s that when you boil down all of the sap—as we do in my part of the world—the syrup that remains is this idea that the message that you get from TV is that you’re the most important thing in the world—the absolute center of the universe. TV was doing that because it was the main organ of a high consumer culture, and that’s the message they wanted to give. But that’s the message even more that one gets from the world of social media—and it’s much better at it. Facebook is forever and forever trying to make sure that it’s tailoring its feed to you so you only see things that are of interest to you. The possibility that you might ever be bored for a moment is impossible—which is why it’s all unbelievably boring.

TM: You still use those technologies to engage and advocate—

BM: I use Twitter a lot, and it has all the same defects. I wouldn’t use it, but the flip side of this is that I’ve spent much of the last 15 years engaged in full-on activism, and that has been made possible by this connectivity. The virtue of the Internet compared to TV, obviously, is that it does work both ways, and there is this ability to use it to spread, share, and connect. It has a positive possibility that’s not there in television in the same way. But I don’t think we make a great use of that, and the evidence of the kind of loneliness and disconnectedness of people is very, very strong.

TM: I’ve always found this book in some ways very bracing and disturbing, but also very funny and entertaining. I’m curious about the process of writing it, and how it compares to some of your more explicitly argumentative writing.

BM: It was as much fun as I’ve ever had writing a book, despite the fact that the reporting of it—the sitting there watching the TV—was hard. But the thinking about it was great fun. It was an unusually shaped book; it’s a series of triggered insights, instead of a very tightly built argument. I hope it was funny in parts, because a lot of it was funny to me.

TM: One of the more striking arguments in the book is that “daily life has scarcely changed between 1960 when I was born and the present”—referring to 1992 when the book was published. It’s a counterintuitive argument, and one that, when I used to teach this book, my students really struggled with. I’m curious if you think that holds true. How do you assess the changes in daily life since 1990?

BM: I think there has been a fundamental shift in daily life triggered by the Internet, just, if nothing else, in the way we spend our time. I know that I spend an enormous percentage of my day on a task that didn’t exist in 1990—answering emails. I do think that something came along that changed the texture of our lives—at least of mine. Now, if people were watching TV seven or eight hours a day and then just switched to the Internet, that would not be much of a change. But I think that the Internet is addictive in an even deeper way.

TM: Well, it’s so hard to separate work from pleasure from just wasting time—they all get commingled in a really odd way.

BM: Exactly right, and I think in a very damaging way. I just read a tragic story, I think it’s in the next issue of The Atlantic, looking at young people and dating. There have been remarkable changes in their attitudes and behaviors, dating roughly to 2011 or 2012 when the smart phone became ubiquitous. It was powerful and disturbing.

TM: One artifact of the 1980s and early ’90s that the book frequently references is a widespread cultural discussion of the moral, spiritual, and physical repercussions of watching television. There was a real sense of guilt about watching “trash” on TV. This discussion seems to have completely disappeared; in fact, a few years ago there was a spate of articles that were sort of nostalgic for TV, regretting that families no longer sat around and watched the same show and everyone was on their separate screens. Do we just displace our guilt onto different technologies as the different generations go by?

BM: It’s difficult now because the cultural memory of a time before screens has been all but erased. There’s a dwindling number of us who can remember life before the Internet, and there’s almost no one who can remember life before the saturation of television. I’ve been very lucky in that regard. We live deep in the woods, and our first child was born in 1993, before the Internet had reached these precincts. As she grew up, through her early years, there were no screens of any kind—not in a Puritanical way—we just had other things to do. I do remember going to a restaurant to get some takeout food when she was five or so and there was a television behind the cash register. I remember her looking up at it and I asked what she was doing. She said “I’m watching that radio,” which I felt like was a good moment.

I will say that two other things that have changed. One, which I understand more in theory than in practice, is that there’s a surge of better television then the stuff I was watching—that television seems to have flip-flopped with the movies in some way, so that if there’s something good you’re more likely to find it on the TV than at the movie theater. The other thing that is very interesting to me and that I’m grateful for is that there’s the rise of this other medium that I really like—radio as transformed by podcasting. I always liked the radio, in part because it allows you to do something else while you’re doing it, which makes it distinctive amongst technologies. There are interesting currents in our media life, but that’s the one I really enjoy. I think people like Ira Glass are heroes of the new landscape. And how odd it is that radio has seen a kind of resurgence.

TM: Yeah, the most low-fi, low-tech platform—although podcasts obviously rely on technology—

BM: Yeah, but it’s basically just a microphone. You can make them cheaply.

TM: One chapter in the book provides a convincing takedown of the old Mutual of Omaha-type nature shows. Is there a way to do nature television right? Or does the platform itself strip out the necessary context?

coverBM: I gather, though I haven’t seen them, that the Planet Earth series was as magnificent as it was possible to get in terms of footage and things. And I’ve certainly seen documentaries that I think were very useful—Chasing Ice,a bout the collapse of the glaciers, is one. I have to say that for me, though, the problem with all of these shows is the insistence that nature is foreign, grand, exotic—that nature is anything except for the thing through which he move on a daily basis. I remain happier to go out and wander around in the woods near me than to look at the grandest woods in the world on television.

TM: That reminds me that a lot of the book is a celebration of a disappearing rural lifestyle. But obviously there are all kinds of environmental reasons for people to live in dense places. How can we maintain some sort of connection with or experience of the natural world in these high-density spaces?

BM: Absolutely. When I lived in New York City I used to do a regular column called “Urban Naturalist” or something to that effect. New York City is the prime example of an overbuilt city. And yet there you are with incredible parks that are stopovers for amazing migrations at all times. You’ve got this crew of urban park rangers who are out all over the place doing great programs. You are surrounded in New York City by Jamaica Bay with the horseshoe crabs coming in out of the Atlantic for breeding and laying their eggs—one of the great spectacles of the whole natural world. Now you’ve got Governor’s Island, a two-dollar ferry ride away, with all kinds of amazing things to go look at. It’s completely possible, and, in many ways, imperative for people to live in these spaces. And I don’t think that urban settings have ever been the problem really. I think the problem is suburban settings. I think that’s really the world that TV is about. Those are places that the workings of the natural world have been carefully disguised, so that you have no idea what your watershed is, where things go, or where they come from. That’s the world that I grew up in but haven’t spent any time in ever since.

TM: You recently traveled to sub-Saharan Africa and wrote about the spreading popularity of solar panels. I was struck when you walked into a Tanzanian village and found that people had bought solar panels to power LED lights, a radio, a phone charger, and a television.

MB: Television is the killer app—that’s what the guys who were developing and selling the solar panels said—everybody wants television. Which you entirely understand—everybody wants a connection to a larger world especially for people who live in an isolated condition. A guy said to me very proudly, something to the effect of: we used to sit outside each night and talk to each other, and now we don’t need to do that any more; we each can go to our own house and watch our own television. And I remember thinking, well, I get what you’re saying, but you might want to be a little wary about where that’s going to go. Because that’s about as perfect an explanation of what happened to America as one could ask for.

TM: How do you think your students now would react to The Age of Missing Information, 25 years later?

MB: I think that they’d be very cognizant…I think everybody has a sneaking feeling that there’s too much noise in their heads from the outside world, that the Internet and TV and whatever else has just put too much noise in our head. So I think that part of it they would completely understand, even if they were unable to make sense of who Richard Simmons is and The Brady Bunch is no longer a common cultural reference.

TM: But you start one of your chapters talking about Twin Peaks, and here it is again 27 years later. Richard Simmons was even the subject of a fairly popular recent podcast.

BM: That’s true. In some ways, once famous, always famous. That’s how that world works. It feels at once distant and very close.

is Assistant Professor of English and Writing Coordinator at Stevenson University in Baltimore County, Maryland. His essays and reviews have appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Eephus, and Glasgow Review of Books. Find him on twitter at @mark_bresnan.

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