Neil Postman is one of the primary reasons I decided to leave Milwaukee in 2001 and move to New York City to pursue my graduate education.
While searching for schools, I had discovered of the department Postman founded at NYU, and after watching this amazing interview of him, I decided to read more of his work. The first book I picked up was Amusing Ourselves to Death, and it forever changed the way I thought about media and information in our contemporary society. (My later reading of Technopoly had a similar effect on how I think about technology)
AOtD’s foreword, written in 1985, resonates quite loudly in today’s information landscape:
We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.
But we had forgotten that 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 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 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. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.
This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.
I had the distinct privilege of learning from Dr. Postman for a short time before his death in 2003, but his legacy lives on at the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication, the Media Ecology Association, and now this wonderful comic version of AOtD’s foreword, created by Stuart McMillen:
[via Question Technology]
::UPDATE:: You can watch an amazing lecture by Dr. Postman on “Technology & Society” here (broken into 7 parts). And yes, the irony that the Internet is keeping Neil’s legacy alive isn’t lost on me….