Doomed to amuse ourselves to death in our post-1984 brave new world

Danyl Mclauchlan writes at The Spinoff about Seeking shelter from the information monsoon.

The whole article is worth reading but ironically: My brain is like a tiny teacup with a firehose gushing into it. The torrent displaces itself. I’ve read everything yet remembered nothing. Still it keeps coming.

But he remembers something written back in 1984.

Apparently George Orwell’s book Nineteen Eighty Four has become a bestseller for people struggling to make sense of our times. It’s a great book. But all the way back in 1984 the media theorist Neil Postman gave a series of lectures titled Amusing Ourselves to Death in which he argued that Orwell’s book was not the dystopian novel that currently described our society: instead he urged us to read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World:

“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. 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.”

This feels increasingly true to me.

Huxley’s version sounds far more accurate to me too.

One of the few books I have managed to read recently is The Attention Merchants, by Timothy Wu: it talks about where the sea of information comes from, and why it keeps rising and rising. It’s a history of media and advertising.

Another quote from Amusing Ourselves to Death:

The television commercial has mounted the most serious assault on capitalist ideology since the publication of Das Kapital. To understand why, we must remind ourselves that capitalism, like science and liberal democracy, was an outgrowth of the Enlightenment.

Its principal theorists, even its most prosperous practitioners, believed capitalism to be based on the idea that both buyer and seller are sufficiently mature, well informed and reasonable to engage in transactions of mutual self-interest. If greed was taken to be the fuel of the capitalist engine, the surely rationality was the driver.

The theory states, in part, that competition in the marketplace requires that the buyer not only knows what is good for him but also what is good. If the seller produces nothing of value, as determined by a rational marketplace, then he loses out.

The problem with any social or commercial theory is that in practice things turn out to be non-ideal, and as practices and behaviours evolve they can move further from the theoretical ideal.

So we come to “both buyer and seller are sufficiently mature, well informed and reasonable to engage in transactions of mutual self-interest”.

Commercialism has become corrupted. The sellers have become obsessed with duping people into buying things they don’t need, and in fact may be unhealthy, especially when consumed to excess as the sellers want.

And a significant proportion of buyers seem happy to be duped. It is easier than thinking for themselves.

There are some who see this and campaign against the corruption of commercialism, but their proposed solutions tend to be too extreme and easily dismissed as the naying of nutters.

The allergy industry is an interesting beast. Foods foisted on the population by product pushers has introduced an explosion of genuine allergy problems, but commercial interests have not only catered for this, they are creating business by promoting fear of falling to foul products.

Promoting balance in advertising, balance in diet, balance in technological acquisitions and balance in stuff you don’t really need doesn’t get much attention because the media needs advertisers to survive so are loathe to bite the hands that feed them.

Maybe what we need are the right algorithms for Google and Facebook to manipulate the masses towards healthy lifestyles. But social media giants live off advertising too.

So are we doomed to amuse ourselves to death in our post-1984 brave new world?