Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Control through triviality - VI

It would be wrong to think that nobody noticed that we were drowning in distraction. Amusing Ourselves To Death by Neil Postman was published in 1985, a world that was not yet invaded by the Internet, cell phones, PDAs, cable channels by the hundreds, DVDs,  blogs, flat-screens, HDTV, and iPods, downloading tunes, playing games (online, PlayStation, Game Boy), etc. It discusses the once-urgent premonitions about the deep-seated perils of television.  He says that TV has turned all public life into entertainment. He warns that we'll be overwhelmed by "information glut" until what is truly meaningful is lost and we no longer care what we've lost as long as we're being amused. 

He rues the fact that there is no reflection time in the world anymore. Today TV no longer dominates the media landscape. "Screen time" also means hours spent in front of the computer, video monitor, cell phone, and hand-held. Silence has been replaced by background noise. Things have gotten much, much worse since he published the book. The book discusses two frightening visions of the future. One was in 1984 by George Orwell. The other was in the lesser known Brave New World by  Aldous Huxley. Postman writes that Brave New World and not 1984 is the book to focus on. 

The Party of 1984 maintained control of the people by keeping them under constant surveillance, whereas the government of Brave New World kept the citizens so happy, they never felt threatened enough to put up a fight. For Huxley, oppression came in a very different form from what Orwell imagined. Orwell’s Oceania keeps the masses in check with fear thanks to an endless war and a hyper-competent surveillance state. In Huxley's dystopian World State, all the inhabitants merely live for pleasure. The elite amuse the masses into submission with a mind-numbing drug called Soma and an endless buffet of casual sex. Postman wrote that  hard surveillance societies are not the ones to be wary of but societies that are bored by stimulation, dazed by constant distraction. 

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 people would be so infatuated by various technological narcotics that 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 not find the needle in the haystack. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.  In 1984, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.  Neil Postman writes: 

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. 

When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility. 

In an article, My Dad Predicted Trump in 1985, Andrew Postman writes that everyone had mistakenly feared and obsessed over an information-censoring, movement-restricting, individuality-emaciating state while his father had warned about a technology-sedating, consumption-engorging, instant-gratifying bubble. The environment is one in which people were ‘being conditioned to get its information faster, in a way that was less nuanced and, of course, image-based.’ “An Orwellian world is much easier to recognize, and to oppose, than a Huxleyan,” my father wrote. “Everything in our background has prepared us to know and resist a prison when the gates begin to close around us … [but] who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements?”

In a letter to Orwell, Huxley stated that instead of the  ‘boot-on-the-face’ policy described by him, rulers are more likely to ‘find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World.’ He wrote, ‘Within the next generation I believe that the world's rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience.’ And he thought that this change will be brought about as a result of ‘a felt need for increased efficiency’.

In an essay he wrote called Brave New World Revisited, Huxley described the society of Brave New World as one ‘where perfect efficiency left no room for freedom or personal initiative’. He said the changed circumstances since Orwell wrote his novel seemed to indicate that the odds were more in favor of something like Brave New World than of something like 1984 because Orwell ‘failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions’. In Brave New World on the other hand, ‘non-stop distractions of the most fascinating nature  . . . are deliberately used as instruments of policy, for the purpose of preventing people from paying too much attention to the realities of the social and political situation’. He wrote:

The other world of religion is different from the other world of entertainment; but they resemble one another in being most decidedly "not of this world." Both are distractions and, if lived in too continuously, both can become, in Marx's phrase, "the opium of the people" and so a threat to freedom. Only the vigilant can maintain their liberties, and only those who are constantly and intelligently on the spot can hope to govern themselves effectively by democratic procedures. 

A society, most of whose members spend a great part of their time, not on the spot, not here and now and in the calculable future, but some­where else, in the irrelevant other worlds of sport and soap opera, of mythology and metaphysical fantasy, will find it hard to resist the encroachments of those who would manipulate and control it. 

It is not a simple dichotomy that says that Huxley was right and Orwell was wrong. The internet has strengthened propaganda and surveillance and Orwell did write about prolefeed - the deliberately superficial entertainment including literature, movies and music that keep the  masses content and prevent them from becoming too knowledgeable. It is just that Huxley's dystopia has played a much bigger role in strengthening authoritarian regimes than is appreciated. The world today is a hybrid of the dystopias presented in three books - 1984 by George Orwell, Brave New World by  Aldous Huxley and  Player Piano  by Kurt Vonnegut. (In Player Piano, there is a permanently unemployed working class, dispossessed by managerial engineers and automation.)

All these fears reflect Gandhi's concerns about modernity. What makes modernity especially dangerous according to Gandhi is that it comes with a surface gloss which makes people blind to the costs that they are obliged to pay.  He wrote, 'Modern tyranny is a trap of temptation and therefore does greater mischief’. For Gandhi, people have to wage two types of struggle to gain autonomy - one external and one internal. The external struggle is waged against institutional practices which lead to their degradation. The internal struggle is against one's own senses and passions. For Gandhi, people who always give in to temptations are not autonomous. He thinks that we can be slaves to our own passions and desires and not just to other people.  He believed that they who have failed to attain swaraj within themselves must lose it in the outside world too. He felt that modernity increased the difficulty of both struggles. 

The external struggle is against the Orwellian dystopia. The internal struggle is against the Huxleyan dystopia. The hidden hand of the market can be almost as potent an instrument of control as the iron fist of the state. His struggle against industrial civilization was because of his fear of it leading to Vonngut's dystopia. He argued that modern economic life reduced men to its helpless and passive victim and represented a new form of slavery, more comfortable and insidious and hence more dangerous than the earlier ones. Others have raised some of these issues before and after his time but he was the only mass leader who could move millions of people who consistently raised them. As Nelson Mandela says in this article:

Gandhi remains today the only complete critique of advanced industrial society. Others have criticized its totalitarianism but not its productive apparatus. He is not against science and technology, but he places priority on the right to work and opposes mechanization to the extent that it usurps this right. Large-scale machinery, he holds, concentrates wealth in the hands of one man who tyrannizes the rest. He favors the small machine; he seeks to keep the individual in control of his tools . . . 

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