"Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business"
(New York: Penguin Books, 1985)
". . .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 the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would be 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 remarked 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. Hulxey feared that what we love will ruin us.
This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right." pp. vii-viii
1. The Medium is the Metaphor
2. Media as Epistemology
3. Typographic America
4. The Typographic Mind
5. The Peek-a-Boo World
6. The Age of Show Business
7. "Now ... This"
8. Shuffle Off to Bethlehem
9. Reach Out and Elect Someone
10. Teaching as an Amusing Activity
11. The Hulxleyan Warning
From 7. "Now . . . This"
[Quoting Walter Lippmann]: "There can be no liberty for a community which lacks the means by which to detect lies." p. 108
"... they [the public] mean that what is not amusing does not compel their attention." p. 109
From 11. The Huxleyan Warning:
"There are two ways by which the spirit of a culture may be shriveled. In the first — the Orwellian — culture becomes a prison. In the second — the Huxleyan — culture becomes a burlesque." p. 155
"... What is irreplaceable about [Orwell's] work is his insistence that it makes little difference if our wardens are inspired by right- or left-wing ideologies. The gates of the prison are equally impenetrable, surveillance equally rigorous, icon-worship equally pervasive.
What Huxley teaches is that in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than one from whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate. 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 re-defined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes 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." pp. 155-156
"In America, Orwell's prophecies are of small relevance, but Huxley's are well under way toward being realized. ... As nowhere else in the world, Americans have moved far and fast in bringing to a close the age of the slow-moving printed word, and have granted to television sovereignty over all of their institutions. By ushering in the Age of Television, America has given the world the clearest available glimpse of the Huxleyan future." p. 156
"To be unaware that a technology comes equipped with a program for social change, to maintain that technology is neutral, to make the assumption that technology is always a friend to culture is, at this late hour, stupidity plain and simple. ... Here is technology without words, and all the more powerful for their absence." [emphasis added] pp. 157-158
"Television, ..., serves us most usefully when presenting junk-entertainment; it serves us most ill when it co-opts serious modes of discourse — news, politics, science, education, commerce, religion — and turns them into entertainment packages. We would all be better off if television got worse, not better." [emphasis added] p. 159
"Our schools have not even got around to examining the role of the printed word in shaping our culture. Indeed, you will not find two high-school seniors in a hundred who could tell you — within a five-hundred-year margin of error — when the alphabet was invented. I suspect most do not even know that the alphabet was invented. ... It is the very principle of myth, as Roland Barthes pointed out, that it transforms history into nature, and to ask of our schools that they engage in the taks of de-mythologizing media is to ask something the schools have never done."
And yet there is reason to suppose that the situation is not hopeless. ... How can we use education to control television (or the computer...)? But our reach for solutions ought to exceed our present grasp, or what's our dreaming for?" [emphasis added] pp. 162-163
". . . [Huxley] believed with H. G. Wells that we are in a race between education and disaster, and he wrote continuously about the necessity of our understanding the politics and epistemology of media. For in the end, he 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." [emphasis added] p. 163