If we, as society, oscillate between two extremes – total government control of media and thought, and a laissez-faire feel-good media-as-entertainment thought-killing culture, then which one of those extremes should we consider to be more detrimental to our way of life? Is it Orwellian totalitarianism of Huxleyan anything goes?
The book I’m reading now, “Amusing Ourselves to Death” by Neil Postman makes the compelling case that it is the latter. The author argues that in our current culture there’s no need for a total government control; we will voluntarily give up our citizenship by being immersed in entertainment and trivial pursuits. There’s no need for state machinery and thought control and Ministry of Truth – it would give us too much credit as citizens. The need for such institutions would imply that we are interested in politics on a deep level, that we know our history, that we can put current events into historical, cultural and philosophical context and that we can discuss matters using intelligence, reason and perspective. Thus they would seek to suppress it, or to give us false information. But the point is that there’s no need for that.
“What Orwell feared were those who 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…As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, 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 Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure.”
Like the author, I’m similarly amused and puzzled by libertarians (especially ones from former Soviet Union) who see censorship and totalitarianism and Big Bad State creeping up on them and infringing on their rights. I guess they were conditioned to feel that way and they were deeply affected by reading 1984 in their youth. But no Soviet Politburo, no KGB goons, no Ministry of Culture could ever have dreamed of having such total control over the minds of the population as, say Fox News or Entertainment Tonight have in modern-day American democracy. People seem to want to be given distractions and gossip; they seem to want to be riled up one minute by a gruesome image, only to forget about it the very next minute, when the weather or sports news comes up.
What’s peculiar about this book is the fact that it was written long before the internet age, in 1985. The author laments the dumbing down of television and actually argues that it is the medium itself – TV as a transmitter of images – discourages discourse the way it used to exist in pre-TV era, in print form. In 19th century, at the height of the print culture, the public discourse was more intelligent and more involved with the issues of the day. This is because a reading populace was not distracted with images that fade from the screen and memory the next moment and because reading itself involved an act of thinking. This is because during a discussion there was ample time to make an argument, then to make a counterargument. Even presidential debates back then lasted for 5 to 7 hours and were attended to by a well-informed audience. Now imagine such a TV show, where a bunch of guys sit and talk for hours, uninterrupted by commercials and breaking news. No sane TV executive would ever green-light such a project.
So the book was written 30 years ago, and most of its ideas are still relevant today. But TV as the medium is on the decline as we now watch our movies on Netflix and get our news from the internet. Will we change with the medium, I wonder? And if yes, then for the better or for the worse?
A few more awesome and thought-provoking quotes from the book:
“The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining.”
“Ignorance is always correctable. But what shall we do if we take ignorance to be knowledge?”
“For all his perspicacity, George Orwell would have been stymied by this situation; there’s nothing “Orwellian” about it. The President does not have the press under his thumb. The New York Times and The Washington Post are not Pravda; the Associated Press is not Tass. And there is no Newspeak here. Lies have not been defined as truth nor truth as lies. All that has happened is that the public has adjusted to incoherence and been amused into indifference. Which is why Aldous Huxley would not in the least be surprised by the story. Indeed, he prophesied its coming. He believed that it is far more likely that the Western democracies will dance and dream themselves into oblivion than march into it, single file and manacled. Huxley grasped, as Orwell did not, that it is not necessary to conceal anything from a public insensible to contradiction and narcoticized by technological diversions.”
“The Constitution was composed at a time when most free men had access to their communities through a leaflet, a newspaper or the spoken word. They were quite well positioned to share their political ideas with each other on forms and contexts over which they had competent control. Therefore, their greatest worry was the possibility of government tyranny. The Bill of Rights is largely a prescription for preventing government from restricting the flow of information and ideas. But the Founding Fathers did not foresee that tyranny by government might be superseded by another sort of problem altogether, namely the corporate state, which through television now controls the flow of public discourse in America.”
“In the Huxleyan prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours. There is no need for wardens or gates or Ministries of Truth. When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.”
“Who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements? To whom do we complain, and when, and in what tone of voice, when serious discourse dissolves into giggles? What is the antidote to a culture’s being drained by laughter?”
“And in this sense, all Americans are Marxists, for we believe nothing if not that history is moving us toward some preordained paradise and that technology is the force behind that movement.”