I stole the title of my article from a book written by Neil Postman in 1985. I read it in 2008 as a graduate student at UCM completing a degree in speech communication. It was required reading for the class, Modern Rhetorical Theory. I was curious why our professor would require a book from 1985 to discuss “modern” rhetorical theory, but it was a game changer for me.
Postman was a brilliant communication scholar, social scientist, and had the unique ability to predict the future. In his introduction, Postman referenced the book by George Orwell entitled, “1984.” You may remember it. In his book, Orwell predicted an imaginary future in which the world had fallen prey to constant war, government surveillance and control, and propaganda.
Writing in 1985 (the year after 1984), Postman joked that Americans were thrilled that Orwell’s prophecy did not come true and that 1984 came and went without incident.
But then he reminded the reader of an older, slightly less known book, Aldous Huxley’s, “Brave New World” written in 1932. Most people assumed that the two authors wrote about the same thing, but they did not. They arrived at the same destination—one of undesired control—but they both took different routes to get there.
Postman’s introductory notes are brilliant and chilling and I’ll quote him at length. He wrote, “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 and 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.”
I get chills when I read that. One of the interesting things about Postman’s comments were the fact that they were written in the mid 80s-long before the Internet.
The concept for the Internet was realized early in the 1960s when a researcher at MIT conceptualized an “Intergalactic Network” of computers.
His dream became a reality in the late 1960s with the “ARPANET” or the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network—funded by the U.S. Department of Defense. Still, what we know as the World Wide Web did not come into creation until 1990. And the rest is history (I kind of feel like a reference to Skynet, artificial intelligence, and the Terminator should be included in there somewhere).
Postman’s main point was that people would become overwhelmed and not think anymore—at least not with their brains. He compared our society to the “early days” of the colonists. He wrote of a time in history when folks would come out in groves to hear the Lincoln/Douglas debates—spending hours listening to them banter. People also discussed pertinent issues of the day like history, religion, philosophy, and politics. Their social experiences were integrated with education. People were informed and intelligent.
Think about today’s society. According to a study by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, only one out of three Americans could actually pass the US citizenship test if required. The test asks some of the most basic questions about our nation’s history and system of government.
72% could not identify the thirteen original colonies.
24% could not correctly identify one thing Benjamin Franklin was famous for—37% mistakenly believed he invented the lightbulb.
76% did not know why the colonists fought the British.
12% thought General Dwight Eisenhower led troops in the Civil War. Another 6% thought it was the Vietnam War.
2% believed that climate change caused the Cold War.
As a society, we’re not unintelligent, we’re just misinformed and misdirected. According to a 2018 study by Claims Conference, 22% of millennials did not know what the Holocaust was. Overall, 10% of adults do not know. Scarier still, according to the Pew Research Center, 25% of Americans believe Hitler came into power in Berlin through a violent coup.
Only 43% of respondents knew that Hitler came to power by democratic means. As George Santayana said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
As time has marched on and society has changed, we have lost, or as Postman suggests, surrendered our ability to think logically and critically. We are a mass of sheep, surrounded by wolves, in need of a shepherd.
Postman suggests that one of the problems is “how” we get our information. It’s the delivery mechanism. In days of old, people listened or read material and were able to remember and analyze it. They were able to think critically.
Today, our society is driven by visual images and catchy phrases that are available on multiple platforms. After all, a picture is worth a thousand words. Even in elections. People don’t vote based upon what they know but based upon what they feel. They don’t have the time, energy, or desire to study the facts. So, people vote based upon their emotions and sound bites. We can’t handle a meal. We just want a nibble.
My grandson is six and like most kids, has a short attention span and loves to play. He especially loves Minecraft and Mario. He is not always thrilled with, as he puts it, “learning stuff.”
Like most parents and grandparents, we limit his “screen time” when he comes over. Naturally, we give him plenty of options to which he sometimes replies, “It’s boring.” The interesting thing is, after we begin to read or play—or whatever, his imagination comes alive and he enjoys it tremendously. But once he gets a screen in his hand, it’s off to the land of Steve, zombies, and virtual entertainment where there is always a next level to conquer.
Most adults are not much better. According to the Entertainment Software Association, 65% of adults play video games. According to Medical News Today, the average American gamer is a 35-year-old adult. Games aren’t “bad”, but scientists have proven that they do rewire our brains and are addictive.
Entertainment has its place but should not have the main place. Many Americans say, “I’ve overwhelmed, I just need to relax,’ and want to be amused by Candy Crush, Netflix, or the Hallmark Channel. The problem with choosing amusement over education is the destiny. As I read through social media posts from time to time, I’m amazed and even frightened at what some people believe, but I’m not surprised.
According to a 2017 Pew Research Center study, about 50% of U.S. adults get their “news” regularly from television. The other half get their information from other sources like talk shows or comedians, social media platforms, or from peers. “Did you see that story on Facebook?” is a common line. The credible newspaper of old has given way to the digital sensationalism of new and we’re paying the price.
In addition, all the sheep are headed in different directions. That’s because our “reality” is shaped by what news agency we watch. My guess is that you watch a particular news entity because you believe they tell you the truth—and the others, you feel, are lying or have an agenda. That information shapes your reality.
All of us are getting bits and pieces of the puzzle, but rarely seeing the entire image. That would involve additional research and critical thinking. We’re overwhelmed with information.
Here’s a bit of free advice from one who worked in media. Any media outlet has one main goal: attract advertisers and stay on the air. “If it bleeds—it leads” is a common theme which means that a station’s lead off story better have something to attract viewers. It’s always “late breaking” or “this just in” or “killer hornets.”
And, don’t blame the media. They just feed us what we like. We all complain on the highway that traffic is crawling because of a wreck and all of the “rubberneckers” ahead who want to look. But, then when we reach the site, we can’t help but look—and then tell someone else “Man, did you see that wreck!”
In 1985, Postman was able to paint a portrait of what we’re seeing today. A world where people are overwhelmed with information—but can’t think for themselves. A world where people prefer amusement over entertainment. This article was written not for your entertainment, but for your consideration. As my friend, Neo in the Matrix said, “I don't know the future. I didn't come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it's going to begin.”
Dr. Wayne Geiger is the Pastor of First Baptist Grain Valley, an Adjunct Associate Professor of Speech, and freelance writer.