Two great novels were published in 1932 and 1949.
Both prophesied a dystopian future where we’re oppressed, depraved, and shackled. Except, the paths they charted were different.
One prophesied that we would be oppressed by a hateful external tyrant, called Big Brother. The other prophesied that our autonomy would be deprived not by something we hate, but by the technology we will come to love.
One feared a world where our oppressor would ban books. The other feared a world where there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.
One feared a world that would deprive us of information. The other feared a world where we will be drowning in a sea of information rendering us numb and indifferent.
One of these novels, in fact, did manifest itself in our current world.
But it wasn’t the novel that most people feared would come true.
1984 vs A Brave New World
1984 was written by George Orwell and published in 1949. A Brave New World was written by Aldous Huxley and published in 1932.
Orwell imagined a world where war was perpetual, people were severely oppressed by the government and everyone was under constant surveillance.
Barring the senseless war between Russia and Ukraine right now, it’s safe to say that we’re living in a largely peaceful world where at least those of us in the developed nations have autonomy and freedom to do what we want. No oppression. No surveillance. No Big Brother.
However, something far worse has happened. The world painted by Huxley in his novel — a world where consumerism flourishes, entertainment numbs people of feelings, and technology controls our lives — has come true.
Amusing Ourselves to Death
I just finished reading a book titled Amusing Ourselves To Death by Neil Postman. In it, Postman begins the book by talking about the irony between the aforementioned two novels, and how the one whose story most people didn’t pay attention to has in fact come true.
For all his perspicacity, George Orwell would have been stymied by this (the present) situation; there is 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 (a Russian communist newspaper); 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. This 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. Although Huxley did not specify that television would be our main line to the drug, he would have no difficulty accepting Robert MacNeil’s observation that “Television is the soma of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.” Big Brother turns out to be Howdy Doody. (Location 1890)
The book, as a consequence of being published in 1985, primarily focuses on the impact of television on our minds (and our culture). Postman fears that we’ve willingly walked into a future where television has become the portal through which we learn about the world. He laments the decline of the written word and calls for us to question the medium through which we consume our information.
Postman is not a Luddite who hates technology, however. No. In fact, he says that TV does have its place in our culture: to produce junk shows. The problem arises when we begin consuming important and serious information through our television. He says,
The best things on television are its junk, and no one and nothing is seriously threatened by it. Besides, 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 and when it presents itself as a carrier of important cultural conversations.
He goes on to talk about the importance of the medium through which we consume our information, why telegraphy began the destruction of typography, how we’re drowning in a sea of entertainment and irrelevance and ends with sharing two lackluster solutions to these problems. Lackluster not because of lack of his effort; but because of the gravity (and complexity) of the problem.
Reading Amusing Ourselves To Death in 2022 feels like reading the script for a movie that you’ve already watched, and acted in.
It feels banal for me to tell you that we’re drowning in a sea of irrelevant information and distractions. Or that entertainment is cutting into our lives at a level that’s scary.
I knew this already. You knew this already.
Yet, reading Amusing Ourselves To Death was worthwhile for me, because it gave me a chance to sit down and think about the following questions:
- What does my current information diet look like?
- How has my relationship with my phone and social media changed over the years? Is it for the better or worse?
- What role does a “medium” play in the information it’s conveying?
- Where am I consuming my content from? Is it time to revisit and “revamp” this pipeline?
- Finally, what important questions are being shoved aside by all the distractions?
The late Clayton Christensen, a professor at Harvard and the founder of “disruptive innovation”, published an article in 2010 titled How Will You Measure Your Life. There’s a particular passage in the article that stuck out for me:
“For me, having a clear purpose in my life has been essential. But it was something I had to think long and hard about before I understood it. When I was a Rhodes scholar, I was in a very demanding academic program, trying to cram an extra yearʼs worth of work into my time at Oxford. I decided to spend an hour every night reading, thinking, and praying about why God put me on this earth. That was a very challenging commitment to keep, because every hour I spent doing that, I wasnʼt studying applied econometrics. I was conflicted about whether I could really afford to take that time away from my studies, but I stuck with it—and ultimately figured out the purpose of my life.
Itʼs the single most useful thing Iʼve ever learned. I promise my students that if they take the time to figure out their life purpose, theyʼll look back on it as the most important thing they discovered at HBS. If they donʼt figure it out, they will just sail off without a rudder and get buffeted in the very rough seas of life.”
The opposing forces that distract you from what’s most important will only keep growing with time.
Neil Postman predicted in 1985 (and Aldous Huxley in 1932) that we’re heading towards a future where we will love the thing that controls us and keeps us captive. Like victims of Stockholm syndrome, this has indeed come true.
But I believe, that just by the act of recognizing the power that technology, entertainment, advertisements, and social media have on our attention, we can diminish it. By sitting down to think about our information diet, we’ve put up our shields. And by pondering upon the role that mediums of information play in our lives, we’re taking back our control.