Amused to Death: How Entertainment Will Lead to our Downfall
“No Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As [Huxley] saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”
In the forward of Neil Postman’s seminal book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, the prophesies of Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World are put head-to-head to see who guessed closest to how things turned out in modern society. By Postman’s estimation (and mine), Huxley hit the bullseye.
It wasn’t a communist, totalitarian government that brainwashed the minds of the West, as we once feared, but rather it was our own desire for comfort and a quasi-religious adherence to an economic system that demands perpetual technological advance and increasing profits.
In order to break apart this argument, we should first define what technology is. To Postman, technologies are not merely solid objects like a club or sword, but rather they are any revelation of knowledge in the world, material or immaterial. The idea of history, for example, is a technology.
Furthermore, he believes technologies contain with them always, to greater or lesser degrees, a moral value. This is a bit counterintuitive, right? How can a sword have morality when it depends on who’s swinging? Yet, the sword was invented for a purpose and the purpose was this: to make killing easier. And by making killing easier, it naturally made the humans wielding it more likely to kill. Its invention altered their ideology, and thus their morality.
This is a rough example, but it illustrates a crucial point: technology has the capacity to change what it means to be human. Especially those technologies that affect our public discourse. Now, in the Information Age, we’ve been burdened with two technologies well underway at molding our psyches and sending us spiraling into the unescapable pleasure dystopia of Huxley’s Brave New World.
I speak, of course, of television…and the Internet.
Television has been around for a long time, digging its talons into multiple generations and causing myriad effects on the human experience. For starters, it has altered how we communicate.
With its predecessor, the radio, appearances were not important. Only the content which one espoused was. This put the focus on crafting well thought-out dialogue, much like a book, that covered all sides of arguments and maintained an audience capable of listening through lengthy programs.
But with television, showmanship became everything. Reason took a backseat to glamour and segments of all sorts began to shorten as the attention spans of the masses diminished. These effects were greatest in the areas of advertisement and newscasting.
As televised commercials grew in popularity, they began to affect the products they advertised. It became less about how valuable a product was, and more of how valuable it made a potential buyer feel. In this way, innovation itself started to look like pseudo-therapy for consumers, and led them to believe all problems were solvable, and solvable fast. Of course, this has never been the case, and has only prompted false hope and misery.
The news is where television has had its greatest impact, for better and (mostly) worse. As segments became shorter and more visually pleasing, newscasters garnered a tendency to swap rapidly between stories of all different emotional weights. For example, a modern reporter may begin with a local man’s 100th birthday, switch to a school shooting in another country, jump back to a cuddly panda being born at the zoo, and finish with a fatal car crash one town over.
We are so accustomed to this, but if you take a step back – what might this sporadic transitioning be doing to our emotional intelligence? Does it make us jaded?
And children growing up in the Internet Age now have a similar experience yet amplified by the ability to swipe constantly from one video to the next. All of this leads us to see the world as a nonserious place where, deep down, nothing horrible is uniquely horrible and nothing joyous is uniquely joyous. This idea of good and evil as permanently ubiquitous breeds a subconscious nihilism that can only be harmful to our psyches.
According to Postman, television and other entertainment media also lead us to a loss of enchantment. This is because we’ve learned to outsource our spiritual growth (a space once claimed by religion and philosophy) to fictional characters in mystical worlds. This is the reason religions opposed the idea of false idols, or spirituality represented through material objects. They can take away from the personal element of spiritual development.
I struggle with this idea a bit, as fiction has done much to inspire me towards greater heights in my life. But I do agree there are limits to this, as living vicariously through or comparing your own life directly with fictional entities is always a recipe for heartbreak.
To be sure, a society hooked too deeply on entertainment is bound for dangerous trajectories. Such a society will inevitably lose interest in important occurrences, and in outright lies from its public figures, so long as the news cycles keep pumping out more revelations for the public to be distracted by.
Children accustomed to constant stimulation will become harder and harder to educate, and teaching will be forced to morph into half-baked versions of itself by implementing practices that are more entertaining than instructive in order to keep students engaged.
Book bans get a lot of airtime these days, and they should continue to be fought against, but the truth is that banning books becomes irrelevant if kids don’t want to read them to begin with.
At the same time, education is really the only way out of this abyss. It’s no easy task to wage war against a sea of amusements, and there’s no simple way to pull an addicted society out of its couch seat. Perhaps our only path forward is to better understand how our technologies impact us, to set regulations where needed, and to educate the next generation so they are prepared to manage the limitations entertainment imposes on their dreams and aspirations.
When it comes to technological advance, it seems there are three main perspectives in the West on how the world may move forward. The first is techno-utopianism, the pseudo-libertarian notion that technology and capitalism should be left alone to progress until achieving utopia. Although popular at the turn of the century, this idea has shown its underbelly as of late with the public laying witness to scandal after scandal from our big tech giants.
And so many made a 180 degree turn into the philosophy of technological determinism, which believes whatever humanity can invent they will and there’s nothing we can do to stop it if progress eventually leads to self-destruction. Bummer.
The third option lies somewhere in the middle. A balancing act between laissez-faire capitalism and Big Brother regulation that brings the world together in awareness of the dangers of technology and inspires its consumers as well as its inventors to tread carefully into the dark unknown of the future. I don’t know about you, but I like that one best. Let’s make it happen y’all.