I recently read Amusing Ourselves to Death. A future post will comment on Neil Postman’s insightful and profoundly prescient thoughts, I wanted to share possibly the most fascinating part – the prologue.
Postman introduces his book by contrasting two prophecies propounded by two world-renown dystopian thinkers – George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. Both wrote of terrifyingly relatable futures. Both earned their own adjectives (though Orwellian to be more common). However, as Postman efficiently argues, Huxley’s vision of the future may have been more spot-on.
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.
While book-burning was an imminent threat back in Orwell’s time (as depicted in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451), when is the last time a democratic society banned a book? Most books (especially those with strong political calls to action) do not have the readership instill credible fears of revolution or upheaval.
On the other hand, radio host Alex Jones frequently receives media harangues for his “dangerous ideology” and “incitements to violence.” Broadcasting signals have drowned the publishing industry. Most Americans nowadays would rather change a channel than turn a page.
Can we honestly blame them? Reading makes demands us to decipher the meaning of abstract symbols (words), arrange that meaning into an argument, and then assess the validity of that argument.
It sounds exhausting. It’s a miracle that anyone reads at all.
Television, on the other hand, prioritizes pleasure and disjointedly spoon-feeds us information chunk-by-simple-chunk.
After a grueling workday, who wants to tax their already fried frontal lobe? It’s much easier to sit back with a bag of chips as our television grabs a spoon.
“Here comes the train. Open up. Choo choo!”
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.
As the variety of news outlets (each with a unique bias and viewpoint) continues to expand at an alarming rate, how can we disentangle the real from the fake?
I think the term “fake news” encapsulates Postman’s point. A needle of truth retreats into an ever-expanding haystack. Whether your preferred news source is CNN, The New York Times, Fox News, or Breitbart, many people view your source as objective and many others view it as a lantern of lies.
Our information diets are too bloated to promote active engagement (passivity) and the overwhelming volume of “facts” in the infosphere can lend support to nearly any opinion. It is increasingly easier to insulate ourselves within a cocoon of evidence that confirms our ever-ossifying beliefs (egoism).
Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.
24 hours of airtime presents a problem – insufficient newsworthy events. There are just too many hours in the day. Local stations often limit their news reports to 3 or 4 daily report. This amounts to 6-8 hours at most.
So what is a network to do? They can’t go off-air. Too many advertisers will gladly throw money for 2:00 A.M. slots to target the depressed, the insomniac, and the erectilely defunct.
“We want to make money, but we don’t have enough stories. Any ideas?”
“Let’s hire some fiery personalities and have them share their opinions!”
“Brilliant! The assenters will tune in with self-righteous indignation while the dissenters will tune in with self-righteous outrage. I can already see dollar signs.”
And like that, the news has devolved into steady-stream editorial. As the talking heads pontificate on the “facts”, we lose sight of what the facts are in the first place.
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 bumble-puppy.
“Up next! You won’t believe what (insert unqualified celebrity) said about (insert controversial topic). Stay tuned.”
“Up next! The dysfunctional family you love to hate. Get ready for schadenfreude and comfort-by-comparison. Stay tuned.”
“Up next! Watch this person with (insert unenviable personal problem) fix that unenviable problem with the help of a television network’s vast resources. Stay tuned.”
“Trivial” and “television” might as well be thesaurus roommates.
In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.
This sums it. The biggest threat to American culture may not lie outside its borders. American culture may be a threat to itself.
While convenience in work affords us ever-growing leisure, convenience in information and entertainment wastes that leisure and produces a passive citizenry. More information is not always better, especially as the quality of that information becomes increasingly diluted.
Postman succinctly states Huxley’s position in his book title. If we are not mindful, we may just amuse ourselves to death.