Humanity’s Dysfunctional Nervous System

Holland, Geoffrey | June 19, 2018 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

Global media connections

In the modern world we know, the mass media – television, radio, and the internet – function as humanity’s collective nervous system linking billions of people worldwide. The problem is these media are failing big time when it comes to serving the public as honest brokers of information and understanding.

Some perspective….

At the end of 19th century, less than 120 years ago, the world human population was 1.7 billion. The fastest communication was via Morse code telegraph. The fastest transport between population centers was via rail at about 40 mph. That applied to developed countries. Movement and communication in less developed parts of the world were still glacial compared to that.  There were no telephones, no radio, no TV, no internet anywhere on Earth.

Much has changed. The human population has exploded to 7.6 billion, headed to 10-12 billion by the end of this century. One can travel by air from any place on Earth to anyplace else on Earth in a day or less.  Communication between individuals is now virtually instantaneous. We live in the era of the 24-hour news cycle. Mass communication across the globe now means that everyone can know whatever is going on any place else on Earth almost from the moment it happens.

What has not changed are the structures by which we organize ourselves. Politically, we are divided into nation-states, whose governing institutions are generally guided by self-interest, with a handful of historically dominant nations engaged in exploiting the resources and wealth of many of the less developed nations.

What are we left with in the early part of the 21st century? A global human civilization rife with economic, ethnic, and gender conflicts, that is seriously out of sync with our planetary biosphere’s ability to provide. We’ve strip mined the life from our oceans. We’re squandering our precious top soil and our fresh water supplies. We’re flooding our atmosphere with climate altering pollution.

The over-reach gets worse every passing year as we add 75 million more humans, all needing a piece of the shrinking resource pie. Our devastating impact on the Earth, the only home we have, is out in plain sight for all with open eyes to see.

So, why are so many humans unaware of or indifferent to our increasingly tenuous relationship with the living biosphere we all depend on?  Why should we be this way when we have the ability to reach most of humanity almost instantly through the modern media?

In the U.S, a big piece of the answer lies in the economic and regulatory framework that has long defined how television, radio, cell phones, and the internet function in our society. All of these media types depend on wireless broadcast frequencies that are considered part of the government owned commons that are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Like so many parts of our regulatory structure, the FCC is subject to the political power and influence of the industries it is tasked with regulating.  FCC oversight is in the hands of five commissioners, all of whom are political appointees of the President. The nation’s regional TV, radio, and telephone outlets are owned by corporations licensed to operate by the FCC. The internet is subject to rules generated by the FCC.

Where does that leave us?  The short answer… with a crazy quilt of media that is focused on generating profit pretty much to the exclusion of all else.  This means the millions of viewers, who tune in to network TV every night are not the customers. The actual customers are the corporate sponsors, who pay for commercials designed to influence the buying habits of viewers. Profit for broadcasters depends on putting sponsor needs first.

This is why we find network TV programming to be dominated by mind numbing tripe like American Idol and Survivor; by sensationalized, formula driven crime dramas; and by a plethora of forgettable game shows.  Job one for broadcasters is to deliver desirable viewer demographics for commercials paid for by sponsors.

When it comes to the news and commentary we get from radio and the TV networks, the information we are fed is more often than not filtered so as not to offend corporate sponsors. That includes distortion, obfuscation, or outright omission. No better example of that is Fox Broadcasting, which has shaped its news operation to assertively deliver an alternate reality that among other things denies climate change and science in general.

The media is almost entirely owned by a small number of large corporations, all of whom can be counted on to put their profit driven self-interest ahead of all else.

Even public broadcasting [e.g. PBS and NPR] is compromised to some extent because it is substantially dependent on corporations for financial support. For instance, Nova, the long running PBS science series has Koch Industries as a primary sponsor. It would be foolish to think that Koch’s involvement doesn’t impact the programming choices made by Nova’s production team.

Bottom line: The media we have is hopelessly out of step with what we desperately need… a mass media purged of empty calories, that delivers the same unvarnished truth to all the world’s people…. a media that helps all in the human family to understand that we are in big trouble on a civilization scale…. a media that inspires with programming that encourages two fundamental ideas – dignity for all and shared responsibility for planetary stewardship.

Pushing back the tide of global scale challenges requires all the world’s people pulling together in the same life-affirming, sustainable direction.  That translates to a mandatory commitment to planetary citizenship among all the Earth’s nationalities, ethnicities, and spiritual callings.

The ability for mass media to so effectively link the world’s billions of people has a critical role to play in promoting planetary citizenship. Unfortunately, ‘dysfunctional’ truly is the correct word to describe the current state of the media. Instead of numbing our minds with professional wrestling, Dancing with the Stars, and the fate of The Bachelor, we must reinvent the public media so that it informs us honestly about the forces at work in our lives and inspires us with clear direction of how we as planetary citizens can put ourselves on a path that is life affirming and sustainable.

It seems certain that if we don’t learn to live within the planet’s ability to provide, the collapse of civilization as we know it is inevitable. Avoiding such an ignominious outcome begins with a recognition that the media we have is wholly inadequate to need.

“Imagine what it would be like if TV actually were good. It would be the end of everything we know.”

Marvin Minsky, American Scientist


Geoffrey Holland is a Portland, Oregon based writer/producer, and principal author of The Hydrogen Age, Gibbs-Smith Publishing, 2007


The MAHB Blog is a venture of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. Questions should be directed to joan@mahbonline.org

MAHB Blog: https://mahb.stanford.edu/blog/media-dysfunctional-nervous/

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The views and opinions expressed through the MAHB Website are those of the contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect an official position of the MAHB. The MAHB aims to share a range of perspectives and welcomes the discussions that they prompt.
  • Heather Matteson

    As long as renewables remain intermittent, there will be natural gas used as backup. This makes sense in some cases, but not for base load. Nuclear should be the first rock in the bucket, always. Then, fill in the intermittent supplies, plus storage, around that. Otherwise, we are just raising prices, and actually creating MORE emissions. The goal is NOT to “go renewable”. We need to lower our emissions, and we need to take an honest look at all the options that help us do that. We also need to take an honest look at how supposedly “clean” sources, like solar and wind, can increase emissions, depending on how they are integrated (policy choices).

  • Greeley Miklashek

    Excellent analysis, reminds me of Jerry Mander, but, then, I haven’t had a TV for a decade. Don’t try to take away my high-speed internet however! As for the content in the media, perhaps I can add a thing or two, as a retired clinical psychiatrist and lifelong neuroscientist. We modern humans in the West have largely become “stressaholics”, to borrow Heidi Hannah’s term. We are addicted to our own stress hormones: dopamine, the endogenous opiates, the endo-cannabinoids (?), serotonin, and cortisol. No wonder my patients were suffering as the result of failing dopamine and serotonin levels, as well as falling opiates and cortisol. Nicotine releases dopamine and we have thousands of high stress activities to choose from to activate the release of the other neurochemicals listed above. Why do good folks go to violent “sporting” events or political rallies or a good riot? We indulge ourselves in the uniformly sex/violence laden media for the same reason: to jack up our stress hormone levels and avoid an uncomfortable withdrawal state (aka “boredom”). And the elevated cortisol levels are killing us, as Mother Nature no doubt intended for an overpopulated species.
    I was walking alongside my favorite stream, in a karst canyon formed by glacial runoff 10,000 years ago, recently and passed a family coming down the path and led by a 4 or 5yo girl who was loudly complaining that there was “nothing to do here” (in the Garden of Eden). Apparently her parents had disallowed her from bringing her I-phone. I moved back into smalltown America 4 years ago in retirement and in order to slow down and reconnect with actual fellow humans, only to discover a world filled with avoidant trauma survivors and brainwashed FOX NEWS hounds. I finished writing my book, “Stress R Us”, which is now available as a free PDF in the MAHB e-library, but hardly anyone cares about my thoroughly researched and documented estimation of the oncoming total extinction of the human species within 100 years and due to population density stress. So, my optimism regarding your efforts to reform the corrupt MSM is, well, waning. Good Luck! Stress R Us

  • Mike Hanauer

    I think IF OUR NATION IS EVER TO COME TOGETHER, it will be OVER TWO OVERARCHING ISSUES:
    1. Special Interests controlling our government and the media, which makes it impossible to pass any meaningful legislation. Good government must be able to create strategy for where our society should be heading and plans to get there for the common good of the people, future people, and the planet. Private companies may fill a role to provide goods and services to fulfill that strategy within the plans.
    … and
    2. Our culture of looking to (eternal) growth is the SOURCE of most of our problems, NOT the solution. The USA doubles its GDP every 40 years and doubles its population every 60 years. Growth overwhelms all else we try to do to help the environment and our society and to achieve true sustainability. Climate Change is one of the many symptoms, as is crowding, overfishing, pollution, the need for franken foods and the anthropocene. So is income inequality, loss of quality-of-life, and always more revenue needed to accommodate quantity rather than quality.
    Sign onto CASSE at http://steadystate.org/, or better have your organization sign on; see also http://www.growthbusters.org/.

    To me, these two overarching issues should get way more attention than they do get – by both individuals and organizations.

    All else, IMHO, is to a large extent a symptom of these two overarching issues. Is your organization including these overarching issues in its program? Probably not – unless you put on the pressure!

    • Geoffrey Holland

      Constant growth is the creed of the cancer cell – Edward Abbey

      • Heather Matteson

        How about providing a better quality of life for the ones we already have? To do this, we need more energy, and it had better be emission-free.

        • Mike Hanauer

          We can do that, but to do so we must reduce the population.

  • Timothy Havel

    “What has not changed are the structures by which we organize ourselves. Politically, we are divided into nation-states, whose governing institutions are generally guided by self-interest, with a handful of historically dominant nations engaged in exploiting the resources and wealth of many of the less developed nations.”

    That’s not really true. Although the process was well underway by the end of the 19th century, the immortal corporation with more-than-human rights and capabilities has grown to be a truly transnational force to be reckoned with in the 21st century. And as you point out

    “The media is almost entirely owned by a small number of large corporations, all of whom can be counted on to put their profit driven self-interest ahead of all else.”

    with just about all the remaining major corporations around as their real customers (as you also point out).

    The problems with the media, then, are actually symptoms of a deeper problem: Mankind has lost control of its corporations, and is now instead being controlled by them, in a manner that can only be compared to the experiences the proverbial Dr. Frankenstein. In most cases the corporations exert their control using carrots – they have the power to make anyone they want rich overnight – but increasingly they are using sticks on the indigent masses, for which they have little need and scant use. Hence the proliferation of invasions of every little nation that dares stand up to them, which began with the Spanish-American war and the invasions of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines etc etc etc, and most recently the not-so-idle threats against Venezuela (see https://afgj.org).

    In the US, a good start to reigning them in would be to pass a constitutional amendment that takes away their constitutional rights for once and for all, as the founding fathers surely would have intended, had they been able to envision the monsters that mere capitalism has spawned.

    • Geoffrey Holland

      Move to Amend – Corporations are not people and money is not speech. Focusing on ‘Citizens United’ is a lame half-measure. http://www.movetoamend.org

      • Timothy Havel

        The 28th amendment will do a lot more than enabling Citizen’s United to be overturned, although that is a common misconception. Please read Ted Nace’s excellent book, “Gangs of America,” on the history of corporate constitutional rights and how they have been steadily eroding our democracy now for well over a century for a much deeper perspective.

  • Meditor

    Are you sure people aren’t getting exactly what they want? Is it possible not every human is intelligent and motivated, that many, even most, enjoy crap?
    Japanese TV?
    Mexican TV?

    • Geoffrey Holland

      The profit driven media are tuned to delivering vacuous ‘mind candy’. That may well be what a lot of humans want, but it surely is not what those same humans need if they are to be responsible contributors to society