The social media conundrum

The social media conundrum

Increasingly, I hear people saying that we’re living in an Orwellian world. Some even say “1984” is already here. Is it?

A friend recently reminded me of an emblematic study by American educator Neil Postman (1931-2003), written in the distant year of 1985 and titled “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.” Even though he was writing well before the advent of Facebook and Twitter, Postman sounds alarmingly contemporary today, particularly when in one of his famous rhetorical devices he juxtaposes Orwell’s fears in “1984” with those of Aldous Huxley in “Brave New World.”

“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 egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance,” Postman wrote.

Postman further refers to the fact that Huxley criticized civil libertarians and rationalists, who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny, but “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.”

“In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us,” he wrote.

Opinions such as these prompted some to accuse Postman of Luddism, even though in the same book he warned of the need to be alert to any form of opposition to evolution and said that his only objection to man’s increasingly dependent relationship with technology was that man should control technology rather than the other way round.

The truth is that inability to concentrate, narcissistic impatience, the unfettered need for attention and self-promotion, as well as the vapid pseudo-philosophizing that is so typical of social media, make Postman – and Huxley in particular – sound incredibly poignant and Orwell outdated (albeit more attractive: Is confessing to narcissism the same as feeling like a rebel against an invisible tyranny?).

Yet the Arab Spring was put together and launched thanks to social media, while social media are censored or even banned in countries like Turkey and China. There is simply not enough room here to properly discuss such a big issue, but for the time being, a good test is to whether you stopped reading this column to check the internet and how many times. Even writing it, I had to check myself a couple of times as I wondered whether to take a break for a bit of web browsing.

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