Locusts, I learned long ago by reading Annie Dillard, are just grasshoppers that responded to the incentives of their particular situation:
If you take ordinary grasshoppers of any of several species from any of a number of the world’s dry regions—including the Rocky Mountains—and rear them in glass jars under crowded conditions, they go into the migratory phase. That is, they turn into locusts. They literally and physically change from Jekyll to Hyde before your eyes. They will even change all alone in their jars, if you stimulate them by a rapid succession of artificial touches. Imperceptibly at first, their wings and wing-covers elongate. Their drab color heightens, then saturates more and more, until it locks at the hysterical locust yellows and pinks. Stripes and dots appear on the wing-covers; these deepen to a glittering black. They lay more egg-pods than grasshoppers. They are restless, excitable, voracious. You now have jars full of plague.
Locusts were swarming right now, ABC News told me via Twitter. Why not? On top of everything else, sure, a plague of locusts. They were on Sardinia, the tweet said:
LOCUST INVASION: Sardinia is seeing its worst outbreak of locusts in 70 years.
The infestation, which farmers say is due to recent weather patters [sic], is destroying crops and infesting houses on the Italian Island.
There was a video with the tweet, playing images of bugs flying around, and a link. I opened the link in another tab, but by the time I went there to look for more information about the locusts there was nothing but a page with a collection of links and headlines. I found the headline about the locusts and clicked it and a video player launched. It played a commercial for Lactaid, dedicated to the message that it was not true that Lactaid was not real milk, which was not something I’d ever thought about Lactaid until Lactaid showed me a commercial to tell me it wasn’t true.
Then there was footage of locusts, created by somebody wandering around pointing a camera at locusts. The locusts were blurry specks. Wind blew on the microphone and the light was too harsh for the lens or the sensors. There were blurry locusts on a house. Blurry locusts among plants on the ground. Blurry locusts on a tree trunk. Nowhere was there a word of explanation, written or spoken, just footage, the same footage that had been playing under the original tweet.
I was curious about the locusts, but clearly nobody involved in producing this—content? Was content even the word?—had shared that curiosity in the slightest. I had to go Google “Sardinia locusts” to find an actual story about them, and that wasn’t much of a story either. It was from the BBC, and it said that “reports said” that the locusts were swarming:
More than 2,000 hectares of farmland has been destroyed by “blankets” of the insects, reports said.
Two thousand hectares is a bit less than eight square miles. Google told me that the total area of Sardinia is 2.409 million hectares. The locusts, therefore, were plaguing 0.083 percent of Sardinia.
“At least 12 farms have been affected,” the BBC story reported, citing La Stampa.
Twelve farms. The reason nobody was really saying anything about the locusts was that there was really nothing to say about them. They were a video that could play for 68 seconds while people kept watching it, thinking “Look at all those bugs [in the frame of the camera]” or maybe waiting for someone to tell them why they were watching the video.
These newslike objects are what have morphed and are proliferating, swarming, devouring attention indiscriminately. Real locusts at least served as abundant and nutritious food, after they’d eaten up all the regular food. And eventually they flew off to bother someone else, and their offspring settled down into being grasshoppers again.