Back to the 80s #4: Amusing ourselves to Death

No. I’m not done with the 80s yet. Turns out that many of the issues that bedevil us today w71ew4kattblere 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.

post truth graph
Marvelous graph from social media. I don’t know who to credit. If you do, please let me know and I will do so.

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.

Alternative Facts

I post in utter amazement.

Doublethink.

What in the world are “alternative facts”? Sometimes the facts are unclear. Sometimes the facts are in principle or in practice unknowable. But alternative facts?

As Chuck Todd noted, “alternative facts are not facts; they are untruths”.

No matter how many times gurus tell us that appearance is reality, it isn’t.

Is this what post-truth looks and sounds like? First claim: he gave facts. Second claim: he gave “alternative facts”. Third claim: nobody really knows the facts.

So far as I can see, all political thinking for years past has been vitiated in the same way. People can foresee the future only when it coincides with their own wishes, and the most grossly obvious facts can be ignored when they are unwelcome. . . To appreciate the danger of Fascism the Left would have had to admit its own shortcomings, which was too painful; so the whole phenomenon was ignored or misinterpreted, with disastrous results.

The most one can say is that people can be fairly good prophets when their wishes are realizable. But a truly objective approach is almost impossible, because in one form or another almost everyone is a nationalist… The most intelligent people seem capable of holding schizophrenic beliefs, or disregarding plain facts, of evading serious questions with debating-society repartees, or swallowing baseless rumours and of looking on indifferently while history is falsified. All these mental vices spring ultimately from the nationalistic habit of mind, which is itself, I suppose, the product of fear and of the ghastly emptiness of machine civilization….

I believe that it is possible to be more objective than most of us are, but that it involves a moral effort. One cannot get away from one’s own subjective feelings, but at least one can know what they are and make allowance for them.

–George Orwell, London Letter in: Partisan Review (Winter, 1945)

 

Back to the 80’s # 1: 1984

Back in 1983-1984 everybody and his dog read or reread George Orwell’s 1984 and made a pronouncement of some sort.

cache_27680941No, we didn’t tweet it or post about it on on Facebook. No one could have imagined such inanities back in the 80s. But we were aware of Orwell’s dystopian vision and we were aware that the anointed year had come. So we spoke.

And spoke.

And wrote.

And spoke.

The general consensus was that Orwell had missed the mark. Sure, we said, the Soviet Union and China were awful dictatorships, but we in the lovely west were seeing nothing of the horrors of Orwell’s vision.

That is to say, we missed the point of the book.

our_northrop_frye2Orwell’s central thesis, neatly summarized by Northrop Frye (I intend a Frye “Back to the 80s” soon), “is that there is only one way to create a hell on earth that we and our children can never escape from, and that is to smash language.”[i]

To smash language. To remove the possibility of articulating non-trivial thought.

 

Twitter.

Facebook.

Instagram.

067466020xAs the philosopher Charles Taylor tirelessly argues, language has both a constitutive as well as a designative function. Language designates insofar as it provides expression to thoughts, and provides a vehicle for interpreting others’ thoughts. But language does much more than this. Language not only allows us to name our world; it also is integral to the creation of much of it as well. By naming the world, we come to understand it on our terms, and we create possibilities of understanding and application that could not be present otherwise.[ii] To live in language is to live in a world of meaningful creation and participation. Without language, we would be much less than we are now.

If, as Orwell feared, language were to be destroyed, then the possibility of meaningful human creation would die with it.

Our world looks nothing like Orwell’s dictatorial dystopia; aren’t we safe?

I don’t think so. Twitter—the medium of choice for the US President-elect—restricts communication to 140 characters. This has had a fascinating effect on communication. First, a number of tweeters have revived the long-dead art of the epigram. It is possible to be insightful and hilarious in 140 characters. George Takei is a master of the art. But neither can you provide a detailed or nuanced argument. Twitter is a way of telling people what they already believe. If you have Twitter talent, it’s a fun and entertaining way of helping people to laugh at their own cleverness. Try tweeting an explanation of what’s at stake in the Trans Pacific Partnership.

But it’s not just tweets. It’s memes on Facebook and Instagram. Wonderfully entertaining, both, but utterly incapable of sustained argument or novel conception.

Perhaps I’m being a bit hasty here. Sure we have social media for exchanging our daily trivialities, but that doesn’t mean that all written communication is or will be trivialized. This is where there is hope.

Education is the place where language has a chance to make a stand.

71ew4kattblIf education fully embraces the “new technologies” and “21st century literacy” then the future is bleak. As Neil Postman (another likely topic for my “Back to the 80s” kick) argued, continuous prose is one of the greatest technologies created by humans for the purpose of making and communicating meaning. Nothing compares to the ability of prose to structure arguments, to demonstrate cause and effect, to offer thought experiments. But prose is not simple. It takes a lifetime to master clear, lucid prose. We have to decide if we, as a society, are up to the task. Do we care to give the gift of prose to future generations?

(As an aside, imaginative prose is one of our great cultural legacies. It is being displaced by video. This is a whole different discussion for another day.)

There is much more to say, and I will return to this topic.

Let me close with my favourite epigram–a pre-Twitter tweet–from an earlier time. In the 18th century, epigrammatic wit was highly valued (as were extended prose and poetical treatment of serious issues). Alexander Pope gave a dog to Frederick, the Prince of Wales in 1736. The dog had a collar, engraved with the following couplet.

I AM his Highness’ dog at Kew; 
Pray tell me, Sir, whose dog are you?


[i] Northrop Frye (1988) “The Authority of Learning.” A talk given to the Empire Club in Toronto on 19 January, 1984.

[ii] Charles Taylor (2016) The Language Animal: The Full Shape of the Human Linguistic Capacity. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.