Amusing Ourselves to Death
Neil Postman – critic, writer, educator, and communications theorist – is
Chairman of the Department of Communication Arts at New York University
And founder of its program in Media Ecology. Educated at the State
University of New York and Columbia University, he is holder of the
Christian Lindback Award for Excellence in Teaching and is also editor
Of Et Cetera, the journal of general semantics. His books include
Technopoly and How To Watch TV News (with Steve Powers).
He is married and has three children and lives in Flushing, New York.
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 re
Marked 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.
The Medium Is the Metaphor
At different times in our historY, different cities have been the focal
Point of a radiating American spirit. In the late eighteenth centurY,
For example, Boston was the center of a political radicalism that
Ignited a shot heard round the world – a shot that could not have been
Fired any other place but the suburbs of Boston. At its report, all
Americans, including Virginians,, became Bostonians at heart. In the
Mid-nineteenth centurY, New York became the symbol of the idea of a
Melting-pot America – or at least a non-English one – as the wretched
Refuse from all over the world disembarked at Ellis Island and spread
Over the land their strange languages and even stranger ways. In the
Early twentieth centurY, Chicago, the city of big shoulders and heavy
Winds, came to symbolize the industrial energy and dynamism of America.