The Doomsday Clock and MeRoundup
tags: nuclear weapons, Doomsday Clock
Frida Berrigan is the author of It Runs In The Family: On Being Raised by Radicals and Growing into Rebellious Motherhood. She is a TomDispatch regular and writes the Little Insurrections column for WagingNonviolence.Org. She has three children and lives in New London, Connecticut, where she is a gardener and community organizer.
I’m not a TikTok person. I’m too old. But when I finally ventured onto that popular but much-maligned app, which traffics in short videos and hot takes, I was surprised to find many videos about the Doomsday Clock. It’s nothing like a conventional timepiece, of course. It’s meant to show how close humanity has come to nuclear Armageddon — to the proverbial “midnight.”
When it comes to TikTok content providers, I wouldn’t normally think of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. It’s a deeply serious organization founded in 1945 by physicists in the wake of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The clock was invented two years later by landscape artist Martyl Langsdorf as a way of graphically illustrating the dangers posed by nuclear weapons. In its 76 years of existence, its hands have been moved 25 times, but never more ominously than in January of this year!
And no need to look further than TikTok to see what happened. Amid all the tweens trying to jumpstart the next viral craze, a 30-second video features five representatives of the Bulletin‘s science and security board frozen in place as a voice intones: “We move the clock forward, the closest it has ever been to midnight.” Then two of them pull a cloth off it and add, “It is now 90 seconds to midnight.”
On TikTok, versions of this video got hundreds of thousands of “likes” and thousands of comments. Mind you, that’s a blip compared to the videos of even minor celebrities. Still, I found myself scrolling through the comments, many of them versions of “Does this mean I don’t have to pay my mortgage/bills/ taxes?” Others had lines like “Someone call the Avengers” or asked if it had anything to do with Taylor Swift’s Midnights album. This being the Internet, there was all too much cursing and all too many oblique emojis, as well as people poking fun at the awkward staging and long stretch of silence in the video.
Mixed with such inanity were expressions of genuine fear, confusion, and distress over the possible immanence of nuclear war. That is, of course, what the clock, as a salient piece of public art, is supposed to do: generate conversation, spark inquiry, and lead to action. As artist Sam Heydt observes, the Doomsday Clock should remind us that “the edge is closer than we think. In a time marked by mass extinction, diminishing resources, global pandemic, and climate change, the future isn’t what it used to be.”