“We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.
But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, 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. ” – Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death
“For in the end, [Huxley] 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.” – Neil Postman, “Amusing Ourselves to Death”
In lieu of its upcoming movie release, I started reading “Water for Elephants” by Sara Gruen. I’m about halfway through it and I came across an interesting passage. The narrator is a 90- or 93-year-old man (he isn’t sure which) who is describing visits from his family.
“My platitudes don’t hold their interest and I can hardly blame them for that. My real stories are all out of date. So what if I can speak firsthand about the Spanish flu, the advent of the automobile, world wars, cold wars, guerilla wars, and Sputnik – that’s all ancient history now.”
What struck a chord for me was the fact that these and other events that happened mere decades ago do, in fact, seem like ancient history. Maybe it’s me, but I find it difficult to imagine the times of World War II or a time before the advent of the car. This translates to media technology as well – I also have difficulty picturing a world before television, phones and even the internet, though it emerged in my childhood.
As a society, we are intently focused on gathering as much information as possible about the present while constantly seeking the “future” – newer, faster and better methods and materials. In “Brave New World”, Huxley’s characters know little about history because it is banned by the government, but it also simply ceases to matter in their daily pursuit of happiness. I’m not saying that we choose to forget history, but is history becoming, as Huxley wrote, “bunk”? Are we only interested in learning the facts needed to pass history class and then moving on with our lives? I know I’ve forgotten much of the information I learned in school. Do historical events matter less and less to each subsequent generation? Is it all ancient history now?
A friend of mine recently recommended Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business”. I’d never heard of the author and was a little put off by its intense title. I flipped through the first chapter and realized how frequently Postman references Orwell and Huxley – I’ve always enjoyed “1984” and wanted to read “Brave New World” before I started. Postman finally topped my reading list last fall.
I’ve never read a more interesting and culturally relevant book in my life. Though the material was deep and made for intense reading, I gleaned so much from Postman’s words. I have a new found interest in the field of media ecology and plan to continue my research in this area and possibly pursue a career in it. I’m creating this blog to house my thoughts on various texts, blogs, theories and other resources.
I chose the name of the blog based on a quote from “Amusing Ourselves…”. In the final chapter, Postman notes that “the problem, in any case, does not reside in what people watch. The problem is in that we watch. The solution must be to find out how we watch”. He goes on to say that “there has been no worthwhile discussion, let alone widespread understanding, of what information is and how it gives direction to a culture”. As consumers of media, I don’t think we ever question the medium or the effect it has on our society as a whole. We are constantly seeking new information at faster speeds, but what is the purpose? I merely seek to question our motives and assess the influence these changes have on our culture. As Postman says, “To ask is to break the spell.”