The Medium is the Message
1984, A Brave New World, Amusing Ourselves to Death
1984, George Orwell
Published in 1949, Nineteen Eighty-four is the classic that introduced the term “Big Brother” to our cultural lexicon. Orwell tells the story of Winston Smith, whose job is to rewrite history in the Ministry of Truth in order to paint IngSoc (“English Socialist Party”), a totalitarian party that has absolute control of the state, in a positive light. As Smith goes about his daily routine, readers witness a dystopian future where citizens lack fundamental liberties. Anyone who speaks against or challenges the Party will be taken to re-education camps, where dissidents are converted into Party-loving members. Big government restricts what people read, what people say, and what people do. The Party uses a form of propagandistic language called “Newspeak” to promote its doctrines and brainwash citizens. Smith lives under constant surveillance by “Thought Police,” whose central role is to punish independent, free thought.
A Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
Unlike 1984, which describes a dystopian world, A Brave New World depicts a utopian society. In the future, babies are born in large hatchery and conditioning centers around the world. They are artificially ranked to belong to a specific caste. The highest caste is Alpha, and the lowest is Gamma. For each ranking, there are also positive and negative ranks. The superior specimen is the Alpha positive. Alphas and Betas are singular entities, whereas lower-caste babies are replicated en masse—identical replications tasked to do the same job—made possible through the Bokanosvky’s process. By restricting their oxygen while they are embryos, lower-cast babies have lower intelligence and small statures. And through classical conditioning, they are not only programmed to be “worker bees” but also programmed to be satisfied, and happy, with a blue-collar lifestyle. Even in utopia, hierarchies exist to keep the economic engine chugging along. This new society bans monogamy, reproduction, and family. Everyone belongs to everyone else. The culture promotes drug use, promiscuity, and instant gratification. Any citizen who would rather spend time with themselves, get lost in a good book, take solitary walks in the park, or refuse to take the government-prescribed hallucinogenic opiate, soma, is an outcast. After all, a soma a day keeps boredom at bay.
Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman
Even though the book was published in 1985, Neil Postman’s warnings are more relevant than ever. Postman was an educator, a professor at New York University, and a critic. He argued that the medium (television, social media feeds, commercials, magazines, news, books) changes the structure of discourse, influencing the content and attracting a specific audience. In our modern culture, we have instant access to information, and we suffer from a severe case of present bias (valuing the present more than the past). These information sources are endlessly entertaining, sensational, and fragmented; quickly digested and forgotten. Overall creating a culture in which the information doesn’t lead to any meaningful action. Postman warns that we have become passive observers and that these present-centered mediums are destroying “serious and rational public conversation.”
By comparing books with telegraphs, he explains, “Books, for example, are an excellent container for the accumulation, quiet scrutiny and organized analysis of information and ideas.” In contrast, the telegraph (or the modern-day social media feeds and news articles) “is suited only to the flashing of messages, each to be quickly replaced by a more up-to-date message. Facts push other facts into and then out of consciousness at speeds that neither permit nor require evaluation.” In Amusing, Postman also explains the shortcomings of show business, television, commercials, and modern education. Despite his pessimistic tone, he believes that developing awareness will help us control the message; the silver lining is “that no medium is excessively dangerous if its users understand what its dangers are.”
How are these ideas related?
“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,” wrote Neil Postman. “As [Huxley] saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.” In the dystopian Orwellian world, books are banned, and independent thinking is persecuted. But Postman argues that our modern society doesn’t suffer from that kind of oppression; instead, our world resembles Huxley’s world, whereby people have no interest in books because “the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.” We’re too busy and distracted with social media, soundbites, and click baits to engage in deep thinking. Our society’s version of “soma” is endless entertainment; visceral, sensationalist news; and permanent digital connectivity. Controlling people through joyful escapism is much easier than doing so through absolute power.