If we knew how to restrict our lives’ appurtenances to the right and natural limits, we would discover that the greater part of the arts and sciences as now practiced are of no practical use to us. -Montaigne
There were two great dystopian authors in the twentieth century: George Orwell in 1984 and Animal Farm and Aldous Huxley in Brave New World. Orwell gave us frightful pictures of the operations of totalitarian states like the Soviet Union that ruled by fear; Huxley gave a picture of an invisible tyranny, one that is loved because it feeds our passions. According Postman, while Orwell worried that we would be overcome by an externally imposed oppression, in Huxley’s vision no “Big Brother” is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. Instead, he thought that modern technology would cloak tyranny in diversion and thereby lead people to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacity to think. While Orwell feared those who would ban books, Huxley’s fear 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, while Huxley feared those who would give us so much information that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. While 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 captive culture; Huxley feared we would become a trivial one.
Today we find ourselves in a world surrounded by an ocean of amusement. Giving ourselves over to this amusement undermines our maturity, our ability to grow in wisdom, it makes us morally weak and lazy, etc. So what can we do?
No thing is excessively dangerous when its dangers are understood. Let me try to sum up what I take to be some of the dangers we find ourselves in and offer advice on responding to them. (Note: this message got too long so I will include five ideas in this message and seven next week.)
1) Information, Technology, and Virtue. There is an idea, going back at least to the Enlightenment, that mankind’s greatest problem is a lack of knowledge. As a result, man’s greatest need is information. Thinkers of the Enlightenment, for example, believed that human reason could solve every problem—from politics to ethics to family life. This assumption was wrong. Is it because we don’t know how to grow food that people starve? Is it lack of knowledge that leads to crime and decay and divorce? We have a glut of information. Before home internet became the norm we already had 10,000+ papers, 260,000 billboards, 11,000+ periodicals, 500,000,000 radios, we were publishing 40,000 books every year in the US alone, and Americans were receiving 60,000,000,000 pieces of junk mail. The Enlightenment failed not because of a lack of information, but because of sin. Mankind’s greatest problem is not a lack of knowledge, but sin. Given this, more information, while it can be beneficial, is not a cure all. Understanding the limits of what information can do can help us to use technology wisely. The computer can give us information quickly, but it can’t organize it for us, it can’t evaluate it for us, and information alone certainly can’t give us wisdom let alone righteousness. Similarly, a new app can help us count our carbs and a smart watch can tell us our stride length—but that app can’t prevent us from eating a second bowl of ice-cream or drive us to the gym. A new program can help us organize a budget, but it cannot stop us from impulse buying. We think it perfectly normal that in three seconds someone can size up a potential mate on a dating app, but think it is insane for someone to be engaged after dating for only a month. Many of our ancestors would have thought it equally insane that we think we can judge someone in a matter of seconds based on an image and yet lack the discernment and wisdom to know the content of a person’s character after a number of weeks. This does not mean these technologies and the information they give us are worthless!!! But they are no substitute for the development of virtue.
2) History. Neil Postman wrote that “The modern mind has grown indifferent to history as history has become useless to it.” Television and social media, with their context free, disconnected, and temporal snippets of information have trained us to think that “History is bunk.” As a result, in the words of Bill Moyers, “We Americans seem to know everything about the last twenty-four hours but very little of the last sixty centuries or the last sixty years.” Not only that, but modern psychology and pharmaceuticals make us think that there is a “hack” or pill for everything. But history is important—it is important for civilizations to know both their own history and the history of others so that they can act in a way that will lead to their flourishing. What is more, as a repository of wisdom, history is essential for the individual to know. ‘A fool learns only from his own mistakes’; a wise man plumbs the depths of the past and learns how he may live a wise, just, and morally courageous life. Consider for a moment what percentage of the Bible is devoted to history. . . . We share the same nature as the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, the exiles in Babylon, and Pharisees in Jerusalem. History is by no means bunk; it is essential to one’s growth and maturity.
3) Censorship. Our greatest threat is not state censorship, but self-censorship. Governmental censorship still happens, but it is comparatively trivial. A student’s freedom to read is not seriously injured by someone banning a book on Long Island or Anaheim or anyplace else. The real threat is things like social media, video games, and television: screens devoted to amusement do not ban books, they simply displace them.
4) The Medium is the Message. The medium in which a message is related significantly determines what can be said and how it is received—it is a falsehood to believe that mediums are neutral and that the same message can be communicated the same way across different mediums. For example, something significant changes when church is conducted via Zoom—no matter our intention, we interact with a service differently when we watch it on a screen than when we attend in person. The same is true in education—online learning is not a different way of doing school, but something different from school altogether. And a political “debate” on Twitter is completely different than a debate around a table or over a beer. Recognizing that the medium affects the message is important and it should make us intentional in how we communicate.
5) Prioritization. We attend to fragments of events from all over the world because we have multiple media whose forms are well suited to fragmented conversation. As Postman explained, cultures without speed of light media, let us say, cultures in which smoke signals are the most efficient space conquering tool available, do not have “news of the day”. From advertisements to notifications there is a constant pull away from our concrete duty to our concrete neighbors—i.e. the things we are called to do and the people we are commanded to love—to things outside of our context and far away from our control. As you are reading this, test this proposition. Take a moment a scroll through one of your feeds. Was there anything relevant? Anything you needed to know? Anything that will help you better serve your family or friends? Did anything deepen your love for Christ? Praying for the salvation of my neighbor is not amusing; reading (and trying to understand!) the book of Roman is not diverting. But my feed is entertaining. I can join in celebrity gossip, I can feel angry about injustices around the world (or indignant with my political foes), I can pick up this or that piece of trivia that tickles my curiosity, and I can read many, many things that make me feel self-righteous because they satirically caricaturize people different than me. But very little of this is necessary information and even less is edifying. This is not to say that this information is inherently wrong (though of course some of it is), but I need to recognize that every minute I attend to something of momentary importance is a minute I am not attending to something of eternal importance. Every minute I spend browsing online for something I don’t need is a minute I am not doing my duty. Every minute I engage in mindless scrolling is a minute I am not serving or praying for my neighbor. It used to be said that ‘the good is the enemy of the great’ for in settling for the good we fail to pursue what is great. I would take this proverb a step further and contend that ‘the amusing is an enemy of the good.’ Far too often we fail to do or pursue good things (never mind great things!) because we are too taken in by the trivial and temporal.