Distraction is the Larger Picture
What would you compare Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” to? Is it comparable to drugs, like marijuana? Or maybe it reminds you of gene editing stem cell research, like CRISPR? More often than not, the answer is a new technological innovation or a viral cultural moment. The temptation to compare such and such new practice or tech to works of fiction like “Brave New World” is immense. What is new has the advantage (or disadvantage) of being at the forefront of our minds. It distracts us from finding deeper connections between the moral of the story and the world around us.
In Neil Postman’s case, the distraction is the larger picture. Starting off in “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” Postman positions two quintessential paths to tyranny: Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” and George Orwell’s “1984.” Postman sums up both paths as such: “Orwell feared those who would ban books, and Huxley feared that there would be no reason to ban a book.” By connecting the introduction of the visual age with the tranquilizing scenario of “Brave New World,” Postman nails the Huxleyan creation: distraction via entertainment.
Elaborating on each successive “age,” Postman explains how the visual, telegraphic, and written age reoriented human interaction. The invention of the clock, for example, disassociated human events from time. It created a perception of the world as mathematically quantifiable and measurable. “The clock,” Postman writes summarizing Lewis Mumford, “made us into time-keepers, and then time-savers, and now time-servers.” It has disconnected us from the sun, seasons, and ultimately nature. A similar influence, Postman posits, is equally true of the introduction of the television, telegraph, and printing press.
Mediums of communication are not mere tools detached from larger implications and ideas. Postman highlights the interplay between communication mediums, language, cultural metaphors, and how we perceive nature, intelligence, human behavior, and ideology. Our media formats (writing, television, audio) and our technology are used to infer certain qualities about natural and biological processes. For Postman, mathematically quantifying human intelligence is a byproduct of a cultural reorientation toward “whatever ‘languages’ we find it possible and convenient to employ.” Our cultural language and metaphors shape our perception of the world around us, and our metaphors are influenced by our mediums. It is here that Postman’s focus on epistemology becomes clear.
It is not surprising then that Postman references Roland Barthes throughout the book. Barthes’ work on the naturalizing of subjective cultural values fits perfectly into Postman’s broader thesis. The introduction of new modes of communication have real-world effects on the cultural layout. Accepting the incessant necessity of showmanship through all fields of cultural communication as “how it is” is naivety. We are not hardwired to seek out what is entertaining; we were culturally ingrained with the desire. “How it is” is myth in action. Crafted to facilitate our induction into complacency. If “this is how it works” becomes the answer to “why we do this” it leaves little to no room to reform or revolutionize our actions.
This complacency is a product of our cultural “soma.” In “Brave New World,” soma is the antidepressant and hallucinogenic drug that keeps members of the “World State” happy and peaceful. It is tempting to compare soma to modern drugs like marijuana, codeine, etc. A literal connection is the first thought, I would argue most people have when interacting with negative utopias like “Brave New World.” Soma is a drug, marijuana is a drug; drug users are stereotyped as lazy, passive, and complacent; the soma users in “Brave New World” only cared about trivial past-times and meaningless happiness; therefore the connection between the fictional use of soma and the real-world use of drugs like marijuana is an easy one.
Yet, it is a misguided comparison. It imbibes a drug with a moral nature. It mistakes the drug for creating the moral framework, instead of it being a vehicle for a moral framework. It also misses the non-literal representations of soma. The triviality of the World State’s culture was a product of the values it held and propagated. Physical attractiveness, class status, intelligence levels, happiness as an end unto itself, freewheeling approach to sex (utterly devoid of any intimacy or relationship), and stability are the main cultural values. Now let me ask you this: what truth or beauty will originate from a culture such as that? As Postman writes, “we do not measure a culture by its output of undisguised trivialities but by what it claims as significant.”
It is here that Postman’s criticism of a television-based epistemology comes into view. A television-based epistemology is dangerous when it moves beyond pure, self-aware entertainment. When it starts to become a “carrier of important cultural conversations” it will inevitably pollute public discourse.
Television encapsulates emotionally tinged audio with a colorfully attractive image. Postman mentions the evolution of this combination by referencing the introduction of the photograph into the public discourse. Where advertising was once understanding focused, it became passion focused. A photograph of a smiling face in a trendy adorned space infers what is to be expected by buying said product. Photographs play to our emotions, whether it’s a commercial for McDonalds or a news expose on the famine in Yemen. Where public figures were largely known for their writing, they have become known for their physical look. This connection to the physical has evolved to influence the presentation of public figures, and that of the average person. Postman doesn’t incorporate fashion into the effect, but it’s not difficult to connect the epistemology of television with cultural conceptions of “personal style.”
In an age dominated by the image, where being “recognized” becomes a possibility for the laymen and a duty for the public figure, constructing an identifiable physical look becomes a necessity. The physical becomes entangled in our self-image and public personas, thereby becoming a facet of gaining and retaining fame. And in a culture focused on “making a name for yourself,” and obsessed with celebrity, this personal style solidifies itself in our cultural discourse. This has been intensified with visual-oriented platforms like Instagram. Everything must be aesthetically fine tuned to a visually attractive (to the point of nausea) color palette. Colors go viral, and clothing styles can’t seem to get off the latest trend fix. Instagram influencers are so on point in this way that scrolling through the “explore” tab is comparable to deja vu.
Once fame is grasped, the cycle kicks in. The more famous a celebrity becomes, the more discernible they become physically. Their clothing becomes stylish, they interact with the latest fashion trends, all the while developing and curating a “look.” Think of Steve Jobs as an extreme example of this. Or look at any pop star.
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Postman’s inclusion of various communications ages into his broader theory provides context when he discusses the effects of the television-age. The telegraph altered our interaction with information. By increasing the speed of information communicated, the telegraph created an information glut. Postman says this lowered the importance of information by separating it from action. No longer was information being exchanged so that people could act. Information could now be exchanged to fulfill curiosity, in ever increasing frequency. It is now news for news’ sake. To add insult to injury, a feedback loop is created: the inability of action toward most news relegates us to sharing an opinion on said news, thereby creating more news. A possible origin story for the introduction of the pundit.
News becomes an entertainment and aesthetic creature. No longer is “the news” (i.e. facts, truth, etc) the focus. The focus, ultimately, is to entertain you. The subject becomes secondary. Celebrity gossip is an extreme example of this. Media coverage of violence and destruction is a subtly pervasive example. Why is it important to hear about wildfires on the other side of the country, or about murders in neighboring states? Your options for acting on this information are limited. For many people, it creates unnecessary worry and cognitive distortions, like availability heuristic (the more recent an event, the more likely you are to perceive it as more likely).
This combination of the inability to act with news as entertainment does help explain why Donald Trump’s comments during the 2016 election failed to sink his campaign. Conditioned to see opinion as the only possible action toward news, and raised in the entertainment age, Trump’s explosive comments could only be perceived as an amusing sideshow to the election. Trump’s behavior was even labeled in terms of a performance (“he must be playing a game”).
This is the biggest benefit of “Amusing Ourselves to Death:” its introduction into the world of deconstructing cultural mythology. What we take for granted, and oftentimes fail to see. If you have had the pleasure of reading Roland Barthes, for instance, you will be familiar with the majority of Postman’s theorizing. But you will end with a sense of something missing.
Huxley’s utopia of triviality has an obvious antagonist. In “Brave New World,” the recipients are the elites of the World State. In Postman’s account, our soma is a byproduct of a naivety toward the structures and effects of information. The medium is the antagonist. Postman encourages us that hope lies in the “demystification of media.” Only then can we gain control over the mediums of communication. But who are we wrenching control from?
Communication mediums are not just tools. Postman is correct in that. However, Postman leaves out the presence of a man behind the curtain. The Wizard of Oz was a technological mirage, but it was not the technology that created the disguise and broadcasted an erroneous image. It was a person. Yes, ideas are embedded, as Postman outlines, in communication tools. But tools still have to be used by someone. Someone has to embed the idea. So who is it? Postman never gets that far. Roland Barthes and other semioticians like him, Marxists, post-modernists, structuralists, post-structuralists, conservatives, and other cultural critics do.
At the end of the day, Postman’s solution continues to hold water: “the problem, in any case, does not reside in what people watch. The problem is in that we watch. The solution must be found in how we watch.”