Information and Politics

With the recent discussions of and tut-tutting about “fake news”—the shading and spin applied by commentators, talking heads, and the chattering classes—it is worth considering the information that is available to people and how that impacts society. The book Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman provides trenchant insights into the issue. But if you’re pressed for time—and who isn’t these days?—then might I suggest the comic version. Postman compares and contrasts George Orwell’s 1984 with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and makes the point that while the former is totalitarian and the latter seductive, both are ultimately and equivalently dystopian.

Orwell’s society bans books thereby reducing information to the point that citizens can’t make accurate decisions. For Orwell, the truth is concealed, and the people living within the culture are kept captive by the government. Huxley’s society is so entertaining and enjoyable that people don’t want to read books. There is so much information freely available that people have to shut down to keep from being overwhelmed, and the truth is rendered irrelevant by a trivial by entertainment.

Orwell’s motivation is to oppose tyranny and avoid pain. He argues that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley highlights humanities appetite for distraction and desire for pleasure. He argues that what we love will ruin us. Huxley therefore places boundaries on Jeremy Bentham’s fundamental axiom, “the greatest good for the greatest number,” in which “good” is defined as “pleasure.” That is, it is possible to experience so much pleasure that it leads to “ruin” or “non-pleasure.” This is inherently a complexity-based argument as short-term pleasure changes over time to long-term ruin. One need only consider alcoholism, drug addiction, or extreme indebtedness to understand how such an argument would manifest itself in the real world.

Postman provides an astringent observation that while society fears Orwell, it may be undone by Huxley. It has been said that there are two bad things that can happen to people: getting nothing they want and geting everything they want. While the latter may indeed prove problematic, it is hard to feel sorry for such people. The good life therefore, according to Postman, appears to consist of a balance between having enough and not too much information as well as between pain and pleasure. Perhaps the Eagles best captured the society Postman and Huxley warned about in their song, “Hotel California,” about a state that is justifiably infamous for its abundance of pleasures with those pleasures themselves constituting a kind of cognitive and emotional trap: “You can check out any time you like,” from the abundance of distraction and pleasure, but once you get used to and develop a taste for it, “you can never leave.”

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