Big Stuff (Life Management)

Amusing Ourselves to Death

One of my favorite books is Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman. 30 odd years ago Postman wrote about the transition from written media to visual (or now digital) media — at the time focusing on the move to radio and television from print. It holds up surprisingly well even as the move accelerates. Postman’s son wrote a great piece about how the book holds up after 30 years in the Guardian “My dad predicted Trump in 1985 – it’s not Orwell, he warned, it’s Brave New World. The ascent of Donald Trump has proved Neil Postman’s argument in Amusing Ourselves to Death was right.” The forward of the book is one of the most interesting pieces I’ve ever read so I’m reprinting it here:

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.

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.

Updated 9/2020: With all the technology we have today, you’d think that Big Brother would be even more powerful. We see the government of China doing this with a Social Credit System. Russia seems to have taken a different tack with the creation of the Internet Research Agency, a Russian Troll Farm, a more grassroots approach to getting people to align with the current regime. The  New York Times published a great expose on The Agency and also has a narration on The Daily Podcast.