Full of Facts, Empty of Knowledge and Virtue

Each new day seems to fulfill Neil Postman’s prediction that we are Amusing Ourselves to Death. While he feared society would medicate itself with the television entertainment industry, I can’t help but think how today, with the internet and the gadgets that connect us to it, his prophesy is now being fulfilled in a new way. Alexa, Siri, Cortana, and Google Home give us immediate access to Wikipedia and an array of “facts” from the internet. Though we have far more access to random bits of data at our fingertips (or lips), it doesn’t seem like we’re becoming better educated or developing more virtue. Obviously, this isn’t true of every corner of our culture or every person, but it largely seems to be the trend.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Postman’s book, where he contrasts Brave New World with 1984, suggesting Aldous Huxley’s vision reflects our culture’s trend more than George Orwell’s.

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, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.

These are sobering words, especially when I reflect on my own penchant for gadgets and technology. Makes me want to take a hike in the woods as I write this.

Alan Shlemon

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