No. I’m not done with the 80s yet. Turns out that many of the issues that bedevil us today were on the agenda 30 years ago
I recently reread Neil Postman’s 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. There is an important chapter dealing with education, but I’ll put that aside for today and focus on the introduction to the book, which has become a deep insight into our currently connected world.
Postman famously reflected on two important works of political science fiction from the early part of the 20th Century: Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World (and a tip of the hat to Brave New World Revisited).
Briefly, 1984 describes a totalitarian world in which people are controlled through censorship, surveillance and the systematic destruction of language. Ultimately, a people without the means for self-expression are incapable of creation and are doomed to servitude. Brave New World offers a contrasting picture of the future, in which those with the cognitive capacity for freedom are constantly deflected from its exercise, through drugs, sex, virtual reality and comfort.
Both books agree that freedom is threatened by the destruction of language and the motivation to apply it meaningfully; but each gives a radically different mechanism by which this might be accomplished. Postman’s great insight was precisely this point.
Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.
This is chillingly appropriate for the connected world. We are offered websites, apps, music, video, games and more for the simple price of our privacy. And we are throwing ourselves with zeal into every imaginable distraction. Who hasn’t noted the trend of people walking down the street with their faces buried in their phones? What teacher has not noticed that students are drawn to the siren call of social media: even with the phone out of sight, there is the constant thought of “what am I missing?” Drivers are apparently unwilling to pocket their phones while on the road, preferring the risk of smashing a ton of steel into a stranger to the risk of missing out on snapchat.
But are we being controlled by all this? Postman thought so. (To be clear: he was speaking of television culture in the 1980s, but the phenomenon is similar. In fact, I believe that the phenomenon is the same, but is considerably amplified by the ubiquity of social media.) We’ve heard the talk about post-truth, and the connected world is the main driver behind our increased reliance upon quick decisions. Headlines matter more than articles, because we are not willing to put aside our distractions long enough to read.
I don’t believe that people don’t want to know the truth, or the details, or the arguments. It’s just that the pull of our amusements is stronger than our desire to know.
Postman would likely be pleased to see that his book and its arguments still apply more than 30 years after the book was first published. And he’d likely be horrified too.