Anthony J. Pennings, PhD

WRITINGS ON DIGITAL STRATEGIES, ICT ECONOMICS, AND GLOBAL COMMUNICATIONS

Revisiting Huxley and Orwell on Technology and Democracy

Posted on | June 1, 2014 | No Comments

One of the faces I miss most from my days on the NYU campus is that of Neil Postman, a professor of media ecology at the Steinhardt school. Professor Postman died a few years ago but not without leaving behind a legacy, including one of my favorite books, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985).

What I liked best about the book was his discussion of differences between authors Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, whose classic novels Brave New World (1932) and 1984 (1984) helped shape the American debate on dictatorship, democracy, surveillance, and propaganda. Both addressed these issues but with different perspectives.

Our engagement with these narratives has had significant implications for how we view computerization and the media, and how these technologies shape our society. Stuart McMillan drew up the contrast as specified by Postman in this cartoon series (that was recently taken down).

Huxley vs. Orwell

As Postman pointed out, while many people think the two authors had similar ideas about the characteristics and dangers of a totalitarian political system, a closer reading suggests otherwise. He stressed that Orwell’s vision was one of a government using violent oppression to crush the spirit of its populations while Huxley’s story was about a government that used distraction and pleasure to rule.

    “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.”[1]

While repressive dictatorships around the world continue to lend credence to Orwell’s vision, Postman was more concerned with Huxley’s idea of a regime of amusement and triviality, thus the title of his book.[2] The brutal crackdowns in the Middle East associated with the Arab Spring were chilling reminders of the use of force and surveillance by repressive governments. But what are the dangers when a political system such as the US, which draws its legitimacy from its heritage of democratic citizen participation, is subjected to a barrage of emotional trivia? Even our election system, the epitome of democratic practice has been reduced to a “race” between personalities, rather than a discussion of relevant issues and related policies.

Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death was published in the wake of 1984 as the Western world breathed a sigh of relief. For the most part, Orwell’s nightmare had not come true, despite Ronald Reagan’s tirades on the intrusion of government into our lives. In fact, Reagan’s turn to supply side economics unleashed a new media philosophy articulated by his choice to head the FCC, Chairman Mark S. Fowler, whose attitude was the public interest is what the “public is interested in.” Public TV was cut back, and private sector forces unleashed, particularly on children’s programming that consequently saw more and more commercial advertisements.

Luckily, it was also a time of technological choice and many parents began to switch their kids to VHS tapes and programming that was less violent and intrusive. Also, more channels emerged as the age of network television was being replaced by the multi-channel universe of cable television. Content variety is a important component of democratic participation.

Postman, who was a self-professed Luddite, was not a fan of the computer nor the Internet because of the parade of individualized amusements and distractions it offers. He rarely used computers and by extension email. A pioneer of the media ecology approach, he saw the introduction of a new technology as something that changes and disrupts our lives. Media is more than machines, but rather shape entire environments; structuring what we can see and say, assigning us roles and the extent of our participation in them, specifying what we are permitted to do and say, and what is dangerous and forbidden.

In Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (1992) he saw the computer, as other media technologies, as a Faustian bargain in which something is a gained, but much is also taken away. The computer gives us home shopping and lots of data at one’s fingertips, but with a trade-off. His primary concern was that the computer would lead to a new era where people were isolated in their world of infotainment fantasies and would reduce their connections with their community.

Notes

[1] From the Introduction to Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business
[2] 1980 movie of Brave New World and 1956 version of 1984.

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AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. Before joining SUNY, he taught at Hannam University in South Korea and for fifteen years was on the faculty of New York University. Previously, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, Marist College in New York, and Victoria University in New Zealand. He has also spent time as a Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.

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    Professor and Associate Chair at State University of New York (SUNY) Korea. Recently taught at Hannam University in Daejeon, South Korea. Moved to Austin, Texas in August 2012 to join the Digital Media Management program at St. Edwards University. Spent the previous decade on the faculty at New York University teaching and researching information systems, media economics, and strategic communications.

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