Book Club: AOTD – Ch. 11 “The Huxleyan Warning”

Here we are in the last chapter! I will have one final post with some concluding thoughts as we leave this excellent book. This chapter functions effectively as the conclusion to Postman’s argument. The two competing pictures Postman has presented to us are Orwell’s totalitarian state and Huxley’s passive, addicted society. Postman believes we needn’t fear Orwell. There are countries like what is described in 1984: North Korea, Russia and the like. But we do not live on the oppressive Animal Farm. Yet, Postman makes the important point that totalitarian oppression can come from the left or the right. Their prisons, surveillance, and icon-worship are equally oppressive. Postman believes that while we should be aware of Orwell, it is Huxley who ends up being the prophet for America. We should fear the smile more than the frown.

“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 become 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.”

Page 156

Postman is clearly worried about the future of our country.

Some not-so-serious suggestions

Postman complains that it is harder to talk about this problem without sounding like a Luddite curmudgeon. It is easy to point to and oppose the Orwellian oppression of North Korea. How do you oppose things many people can’t even recognize and don’t want to see?

“But what if there are no cries of anguish to be heard? Who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements? To whom do we complain and when, and in what tone of voice, when serious discourse dissolves into giggles? What is the antidote to a culture’s being drained by laughter?”

Page 156

There is no “articulated ideology” from Hitler or Marx to argue against. What we are fighting is unintended consequences. Television and its descendants bring with it an ideology of how life is experienced and the main response has been unquestioned compliance. We don’t have any excuses because we know we are changing and we like it. This betrays the underlying blind faith we have in that all technological change must be progress toward an utopian end. Postman gets pretty dreary here because of two chief difficulties: 1) Not everyone agrees that there is a problem to fix and 2) There is probably no real solution.

Postman dismisses two suggestions and gives two of his own. First, is the suggestion we stop watching TV. Postman says that is not going to happen and there is no point in even advocating for it. Second (and almost as dubious), he says that modifying TV watching isn’t going to make a material difference. Taking a week or even a month off won’t solve the problem. Postman then advocates for the banning of political ads from TV (he really seems to hate them). At the very least he would like to see a “hazardous to your health” warning for them like we put on cigarette packs. You can feel the cynicism here. His other suggestions is that we keep TV what it is: entertainment and nothing more. Postman says it isn’t “Cheers” (sit-coms) that will do us harm. It’s “60 Minutes” and Sesame Street.” But this he doesn’t think will happen either.

Talking back to our TVs

Postman puts forward an extensive list of questions we need to answer if we are to address these issues. I won’t reproduce them here. They deal with how we receive and communicate information as a society. By understating how TV works as a communication medium it reduces its danger to us. Postman writes:

“In any case, the point I am trying to make is that only through a deep and unfailing awareness of the structure and effects of information, through the demystification of media, is there any hope of our gaining some measure of control over television, or the computer, or any other medium.”

Page 161

Postman can only come up with two ideas, one bad and one desperate. The first one which he calls “nonsensical” would be make TV shows about TV as a medium (the content of this book). It wouldn’t work because one would have to edit the content to make it watchable which undermines the point. The second idea is to tap into our “naive and mystical faith in the efficacy of education”(162). Postman says they need to teach what he is talking about in schools to prepare kids to handle media. Postman admits that his education solution is the same as Huxley’s solution. Musing about Huxley, Postman concludes ominously:

“For in the end, [Huxley] was trying to tell us that what afflicted the people in Brave New World was not that they were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking.”

Page 163

Personal Reflections

I find what Postman writes in this chapter to be compelling and even prophetic. This year I have read several books by Christian and non-Christian authors who are pointing to our our screens and social media use as a serious problem. In teenagers we are seeing mental health issues (like suicide) rise with their use of social media (Read more here). More broadly others have written about how we have unknowingly been ceding our autonomy to become dependent upon created content and their producers. If you talk about how we need less of these things in our lives some agree (but not enough to do anything about it) while others think you are nuts. We do have a problem of assuming technological advancement is “always” a net positive for society. What if it isn’t? How would we know? That is Postman’s concern and he is right to be worried.

Consider (again!) that this was written in the 1980s! No home internet, computers were just making the scene, no social media, cordless phones were just around the corner. Now we are dealing with all manner of addictions to our phones, screens, and media. We need to pause. We need to think about how we are thinking. We need to think about what our technology is doing to us.

As Christians we are called to know no master but Christ. And perhaps for the first time we aren’t struggling to decide between God and greed. Instead we are seeking to serve Christ as long as it is through a screen.

What do you think? Is Postman right to raise his concerns? You can contact me here. Thanks for reading!

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