March 21, 2011
FOOD FOR THOUGHT, OR A FOOTNOTE TO YESTERDAY'S POST
Before the Internet, before laptop computers, smartphones, Kindles, Nooks and Ipads and Ipods, before cable television, videos on demand, DVDs, and YouTube, before Facebook, there was a book and a warning.
Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Elisabeth Sifton Books/Viking, 1985) ("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." Id. at vii-viii. 'Each of the media that entered the electronic conversation n the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries followed the lead of the telegraph and the photograph, and amplified their biases. Some, such a film, were by their nature inclined to do so. Others, whose bias was rather toward the amplification of rational speech--like radio--were overwhelmed by the thrust of the new epistemology and came in the end to support it. Together, this ensemble of electronic techniques called into being a new world--a peek-a-boo world, where now this event, now that, pops into view for a moment, then vanishes again. It is a world without much coherence or sense; a world that does not ask us, indeed, does not permit us to do anything; a world that is, like a child's game of peel-a-boo, entirely self-contained. But like peek-a-boo, it is also endlessly entertaining." Id. at 77. Compulsive twitting, endless text-messaging, and constantly updating one's Facebook are, each and every one, essentially peek-a-boo for narcissists. "In searching the literature of education, you will find it said by some that children will learn best when they are interested in what they are learning. You will find it said--Plato and [John] Dewey emphasized this--that reason is best cultivated when it is rooted in robust emotional ground. You will even find some who say that learning is best facilitated by a loving and benign teacher. But no one has ever said or implied that significant learning is effectively, durably and truthfully achieved when education is entertainment. Education philosophers have assumed that becoming acculturated is difficult because it necessarily involves the imposition of restraints. They have argued that there must be a sequence to learning, that perseverance and a certain measure of perspiration are indispensable, that individual pleasures must frequently be submerged in the interests of group cohesion, and that learning to be critical and to think conceptually and rigorously do not come easily to the young but are hard-fought victories. Indeed, Cicero remarked that the purpose of education is to free the student from the tyranny of the present, which cannot be pleasurable for those like the young, who are struggling hard to to do the opposite--that is, accommodate themselves to the present." 'Television offers a delicious and . . . original alternative to all of this. We might say there are three commandments that form the philosophy of the education which television offers. The influence of these commandments is observable in every type of television programming. . . . The commandments are as follows: "Thou shalt have no prerequisites. . . ." "Thous shalt induce no perplexity. . . . "Thou shalt avoid exposition like the ten plagues visited upon Egypt. . . ." Id. at 146-148. In the age of student as customer (and notwithstanding that many American parent will give lip-service to be a 'tiger mom), the commandments have found rabid followers within the education system from preschool through graduate school. "Judges, lawyers and defendants do not regard proverbs or sayings as a relevant response to legal disputes. In this, they are separated from the tribal chief by a media-metaphor. For in a print-based courtroom, where law books, briefs, citations and other written materials define and organize the method of finding the truth, the oral tradition has lost much of its resonance--but not all of it, Testimony is expected to be given orally, on the assumption that the spoken, not the written word is a truer reflection of the state of mind of a witness. Indeed, in many courtrooms jurors are not permitted to take notes, nor are they given written copies of the judge's explanation of the law. Jurors are expected to hear the truth, or its opposite, not to read it. Thus, we may say that there is a clash of resonances in our concept of legal truth. On the one hand, there is a residual belief in the power of speech, and speech alone, to carry the truth; on the other hand, there is a much stronger belief in the authenticity of writing and, in particular, printing, This second belief has little tolerance for poetry, proverbs, sayings, parables or any other expression of oral wisdom The law is what legislators and judges have written. In our culture, lawyers do not have to be wise; they need to be well briefed." Id. at 19-20. Of course, now that the Internet has entered the courtroom, it is not clear that twenty-first-century lawyers need even be well briefed when they are able to use their laptops, smartphones, or whatever to access and search databases (or a more knowledgeable lawyer--perhaps located a continent away.) Postman book, published more than a quarter-century ago, remains relevant . . . if not even more so.).