Amusing Ourselves to Death

ℹ️ A few weeks after its publication, this post gained an unexpected part II, courtesy of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. Where the author dissects a related idea, but with the added benefit of having lived through the Internet era.

Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing.

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, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure.

In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

Despite having been written more than three decades ago, it is astonishing how relevant its core ideas still remain. It faultlessly depicts our current society — a canary in the coal mine of sorts. Presumably, at the time of its publication, it might have been perceived as an overstatement, yet with the benefit of hindsight, it has fallen short of dystopia.

The book warns us of how each medium, like language itself, defines and ultimately shapes cultures. It makes possible a unique mode of discourse by providing a new orientation for thought, expression, culture, or sensibility. It uses television as the foundation for its sharp criticism, yet one can safely replace it with social media and the outcome would still ring true.

The author walks us through the evolution of culture from the oral tradition; then the printed word, that encouraged rationality — the sequential, propositional character of the written word fosters an analytic management of knowledge; then the telegraph, for instant communications, with an abundant flow of information that had nothing to do with those to whom it was addressed; to finally arrive at television, which uses as the pinnacle to analyze most of our societal diseases.

TV is turning all public life (education, religion, politics, journalism) into entertainment. Multitasking is standard. Communities have been replaced by demographics. Silence has been replaced by background noise. It’s a different world.

Despite its age, the point remains and it is more relevant than ever, we just made it exponentially worse with modern technology. This is one of those books where the author could be brought to the present and amuse himself with our current state of affairs. He would not believe how right he was — with the little information he hold at the time — but most important, how extreme and pernicious his analysis turned out to be.

The medium defines the message

In today’s world it is implausible to imagine an overweight president. The shape of a man’s body is largely irrelevant to the shape of his ideas when he is addressing a public in writing or on the radio. But television gives us a conversation in images, not words; discourse is conducted largely through visual imagery.

Public figures were known largely by their written words, not by their looks or even their oratory. Today, we may have reached the point where cosmetics has replaced ideology as the field of expertise over which a politician must have competent control.

Another example, the idea of the “news of the day” was entirely created by the telegraph, which made it possible to move decontextualized information over vast spaces at incredible speed. Cultures without speed-of-light media do not have “news of the day”.

The clearest way to see through a culture is to attend to its tools for conversation. Culture is recreated anew by every medium of communication — from painting to hieroglyphs to the alphabet to television. Variations in the structures of languages result in variations in our world view. How people think about time and space, about things and processes, will be greatly influenced by the grammatical features of their language.

Here are two examples:

  • 🕰 How the clock creates the idea of “moment to moment.” A piece of power machinery whose ‘product’ is seconds and minutes — disassociating time from human events. Moment to moment, it turns out, is not God’s conception, or nature’s. It is man conversing with himself through a piece of machinery he created. The clock made us into time-keepers, and then time-savers, and now time-servers. Eternity ceased to serve as the measure and focus of human events: the inexorable ticking of the clock may have had more to do with the weakening of God’s supremacy than all the treatises produced by the philosophers of the Enlightenment.
  • 👓 The invention of eyeglasses suggested the idea that human beings need not accept as final either the endowments of nature or the ravages of time. Eyeglasses refuted the belief that anatomy is destiny by putting forward the idea that our bodies as well as our minds are improvable. There is a link between the invention of eyeglasses in the twelfth century and gene-splitting research in the twentieth.

We do not see nature or intelligence or human motivation or ideology as “it” is but only as our languages are. And our languages are our media. Our media are our metaphors. Our metaphors create the content of our culture.

The uprising of the printed word

Thou shalt not write down thy principles, still less print them, lest thou shall be entrapped by them for all time.

Between 1640 and 1700, the literacy rate for men in Massachusetts and Connecticut was somewhere between 89 percent and 95 percent.

It is in the eighteenth century that capitalism is demonstrated to be a rational and liberal system of economic life, that religious superstition comes under furious attack, that the divine right of kings is shown to be a mere prejudice, that the idea of continuous progress takes hold, and that the necessity of universal literacy through education becomes apparent. Learning became book-learning and empowered people regarding their social status.

America was founded by intellectuals. The Founding Fathers were sages, scientists, men of broad cultivation. A rare occurrence in the history of modern nations from which it has taken us two centuries and a communications revolution to recover.

The printed word domination was partially possible because of its lack of competition. Printed matter was virtually all that was available. It is also the difference between living in a culture that provides little opportunity for leisure, and one that provides much. There were no movies to see, radio to hear, photographic displays to look at, records to play. There was no television.

The typographic mind

The resonances of the lineal, analytical structure of print, and in particular, of expository prose, could be felt everywhere. Even in how people talked.

Almost all of the characteristics we associate with mature discourse were amplified by typography. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, print put forward a definition of intelligence that gave priority to the objective, rational use of the mind and at the same time encouraged forms of public discourse with serious, logically ordered content.

Language and public discourse used to resemble pure print. That the audience was able to process it through the ear is remarkable only to people whose culture no longer resonates powerfully with the printed word.

Here’s a relate from an arrangement of a political debate: provided that Douglas would speak first, for one hour; Lincoln would take an hour and a half to reply; Douglas, a half hour to rebut Lincoln’s reply. This debate was considerably shorter than those to which the two men were accustomed.

The idea may be banal, the fact irrelevant, the claim false, but there is no escape from meaning when language is the instrument guiding one’s thought. Though one may accomplish it from time to time, it is very hard to say nothing when employing a written English sentence.

The newspaper

In 1786, Benjamin Franklin observed that Americans were so busy reading newspapers and pamphlets that they scarcely had time for books.

Newspapers assumed that potential buyers were literate, rational, analytical. Indeed, the history of newspaper advertising in America may be considered as a metaphor of the descent of the typographic mind, beginning, as it does, with reason, and ending, as it does, with entertainment.

In 1704 when the first paid advertisements appeared in an American newspaper, The Boston News-Letter. One of them offered a reward for the capture of a thief; another offered a reward for the return of an anvil that was “taken up” by some unknown party. The third actually offered something for sale.

As late as 1890, advertising, still understood to consist of words, was regarded as an essentially serious and rational enterprise whose purpose was to convey information and make claims in propositional form. Advertising was intended to appeal to understanding, not to passions.

By the turn of the century, advertisers no longer assumed rationality on the part of their potential customers. Advertising became one part depth psychology, one part aesthetic theory.

The telegraph

The moment transportation and communication could be disengaged from each other, space was not an inevitable constraint on the movement of information.

A continent-wide conversation became possible: the telegraph erased state lines, collapsed regions, and, by wrapping the continent in an information grid, created the possibility of a unified American discourse.

  • The telegraph made information into a commodity: we made possible the communication from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas may have nothing important to communicate.
  • Context-free information: the value of information need not be tied to any function it might serve in social and political decision-making and action, but may attach merely to its novelty, interest, and curiosity.
  • Most of our daily news is inert: consisting of information that gives us something to talk about but cannot lead to any meaningful action.
  • Abundance of irrelevant information: it dramatically altered the information-action ratio. In contrast, in both oral and typographic cultures, information derives its importance from the possibilities of action.

As Thoreau implied, telegraphy made relevance irrelevant. The telegraph made public discourse essentially incoherent. It brought into being a world of broken time and broken attention. It made the country into one neighborhood, but one, populated by strangers who knew nothing but the most superficial facts about each other.

For the first time in human history, people were faced with the problem of information glut. We were sent information which answered no question we had asked, and which, in any case, did not permit the right of reply.

The telegraph is suited only to the flashing of messages, each to be quickly replaced by a more up-to-date message. Facts push other facts into and then out of consciousness at speeds that neither permit nor require evaluation. On the other hand, a book is an attempt to make thought permanent and to contribute to the great conversation conducted by authors of the past.

Telegraphic discourse permitted no time for historical perspectives and gave no priority to the qualitative. To the telegraph, intelligence meant knowing of lots of things, not knowing about them.

The photograph

The name “photography” — which oddly means “writing with light” — was given to this process by the famous astronomer Sir John F. W. Herschel.

Photography and writing do not inhabit the same universe of discourse. Pictures need to be recognized; words need to be understood. Photograph presents the world as object; language, the world as idea.

The words “true” and “false” come from the universe of language, and no other. When applied to a photograph, the question, “is it true?” means only “is this a reproduction of a real slice of space-time?”

Advertisers had discovered that a picture was not only worth a thousand words, but, where sales were concerned, was even better. For Americans, seeing, not reading, became the basis for believing.

It is true enough that the photograph provides a context for the sentence you have been given, and that the sentence provides a context of sorts for the photograph, and you may even believe for a day or so that you have learned something. But if the event is entirely self-contained, devoid of any relationship to your past knowledge or future plans, then the appearance of context provided by the conjunction of sentence and image is illusory, you will have learned nothing.

New technologies had turned the age-old problem of information on its head: where people once sought information to manage the real contexts of their lives, now they had to invent contexts in which otherwise useless information might be put to some apparent use. For example: the crossword puzzle, the quiz shows, the Trivial Pursuit… Each of these supplies an answer to the question, “what am I to do with all these disconnected facts?”

The television

We do not measure a culture by its output of undisguised trivialities but by what it claims as significant. Therein is our problem, for television is at its most trivial and, therefore, most dangerous when its aspirations are high, when it presents itself as a carrier of important cultural conversations.

There is a distinction between a technology and a medium. A technology is to a medium as the brain is to the mind. Like the brain, a technology is a physical apparatus. Like the mind, a medium is a use to which a physical apparatus is put.

Every technology has an inherent bias. It has within its physical form a predisposition toward being used in certain ways and not others. Only those who know nothing of the history of technology believe that a technology is entirely neutral.

It is possible for a technology to be so used that its potentialities are prevented from developing and its social consequences kept to a minimum. There are many places in the world where television, though the same technology as it is in America, is an entirely different medium from that which we know.

Television offers viewers a variety of subject matter, requires minimal skills to comprehend it, and is largely aimed at emotional gratification. The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining.

Education as entertainment

Television serves us most usefully when presenting junk-entertainment; it serves us most ill when it co-opts serious modes of discourse and turns them into entertainment packages.

Parents embraced “Sesame Street” because it allowed them to justify their children to sit transfixed in front of a television screen for unnatural periods of time. Eager to hope that television could teach their children something other than a commercial.

Yet “Sesame Street” undermines what the traditional idea of schooling represents. Its core contribution to educational philosophy is the idea that teaching and entertainment are inseparable. This entirely original conception is to be found nowhere in classic educational discourses.

Television, by its power to control the time, attention and cognitive habits of our youth, gained the power to control their education. Nowadays, the major educational enterprise now being undertaken is not happening in the classrooms but in the home, in front of a television screen.

The consequences of this reorientation are to be observed in the refashioning of the classroom into a place where both teaching and learning are intended to be vastly amusing activities. However, the name we may properly give to an education without prerequisites, perplexity and exposition is entertainment.

Orwell vs. Huxley

To be unaware that a technology comes equipped with a program for social change, to maintain that technology is neutral, to make the assumption that technology is always a friend to culture is, at this late hour, stupidity plain and simple.

[…] Introduce the alphabet or the printing press with movable type to a culture and you change its cognitive habits, its social relations, its notions of community, history and religion. Introduce speed-of-light transmission of images and you make a cultural revolution. Without a vote. Without polemics. Without guerrilla resistance.

Here is ideology, pure if not serene. Here is ideology without words, and all the more powerful for their absence. All that is required to make it stick is a population that devoutly believes in the inevitability of progress. 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.

As mentioned in the very beginning of the summary, there are two ways by which the spirit of a culture may be shriveled. In the first — the Orwellian — culture becomes a prison. In the second — the Huxleyan — culture becomes a burlesque.

What Huxley teaches is that in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate. 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.

Public consciousness has not yet assimilated the point that technology is ideology. This, in spite of the fact that before our very eyes technology has altered every aspect of life in America during the past eighty years.

For in the end, he was trying to tell us that what afflicted the people in Brave New World was not that they were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking.

First published on June 05, 2021