Tuesday, February 14, 2012

1984 or Brave New World? (Postman on Orwell & Huxley)

This is a quote worth pondering. It's from Neil Postman's 1985 polemic against television Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in an Age of Show Business (Introduction, pp. vii-viii).

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 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 distraction." 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.

Who was the greater prophet? Orwell or Huxley? Postman saw Huxley as the more prophetic as he surveyed the state of Western society in the mid-80s! (imagine if he lived long enough to see the rise of social media) -- a society where a voracious appetite for entertainment collided with an unprecedented explosion of information. I don't know if Postman invented the term "infotainment" but he described it better than anyone.

Fast forward to 2012 and the predictions of Huxley (and Postman) looks even more on point. It's been a few decades since we've gone from a predominantly word-based society to one based predominantly on images. To take one minor example: compare the average mass-market periodical from the 19th or early-20th century with what you find in the waiting room of your doctor's office -- glossy fare comprised of image after image, advertisement after advertisement, perfect for mindlessly flipping through to ward off the boredom.

It's not that people have stopped reading books, but increasingly they are merely entertainment filler to pass the time while getting from Point A to Point B. The practical effect described by Huxley may be the same though. I'm someone who values images as much as the next guy. I love cinema! But if that wasn't counterbalanced by a love and appetite for the written word I'd be much the poorer spiritually, intellectually and emotionally.

More importantly, as someone who loves Christ's church, I have to wonder: how much has she given in to the privileging of images over words? Images can be a powerful tool to convey truths about God and his world, but God has chosen to reveal himself to us primarily through words, and the incarnate Word, Jesus. Plus the Bible takes a dim view of images as they relate to God, and worship that pleases him (see the Second Commandment, etc). Images can point us to the gospel, but we still need words to convey it's content. Hopefully we haven't lost the ability to proclaim it and receive it. May it never be said of the church -- as Huxley feared for society at large -- that truth is being "drowned in a sea of irrelevance!"

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