In 1985, a social critic named Neal Postman, in the introduction to his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, compared two famous dystopian visions: 1984 by George Orwell and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. He noted that though many people thought their visions were similar, Huxley and Orwell had very different theories about how people would eventually lose their freedoms.
Orwell thought it would be Big Brother, the all-watching, all-powerful state. Now certainly, in the age of the NSA and TSA, it sounds like he may have been on to something.
But Postman thought Huxley was the one who got it right. Here’s how he put it:
“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, because 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 could become a trivial culture…As Huxley remarked in “Brave New World Revisited,” the civil libertarians and rationalists ever on the alert to oppose tyranny failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.”
In 1984, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they were controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared what we love will ruin us. “My book,” Postman then concluded, “is about the possibility that Huxley was right, not Orwell.” And perhaps nothing has so vindicated Postman’s take on American culture like Pokemon Go, a game in which users capture, battle, and train mythical creatures. Already it has more users than Tindr and even Twitter.
The upside is that this game take users outdoors to look for Pokemon, around cities and town, even fields, using their phones’ GPS and camera. The downside is that though outdoors, users are still staring at screens, oblivious to the world in which they’re searching, not to mention to other people.
As should have been imagined, there have been casualties. A couple of weekends ago, hundreds of gamers fought off traffic heading into Central Park, when a particularly elusive Pokemon was spotted there. A couple of weeks ago, two men fell off a cliff near San Diego playing the game. Others have been stabbed, robbed, beaten up and shot at by those taking advantage of the unaware users.
As a San Diego Sheriff’s Department spokesman said, “People need to realize this is just a game. It’s not worth your life. No game is worth your life.”
Neil Postman’s warning in Amusing Ourselves to Death, however, went further than that. He warned that we were becoming a silly culture, addicted to distraction, without the ability to prefer the good, the true, and the beautiful to the trivial, the meaningless, and the titillating. Such a culture, he thought, would be easily taken captive by the inability to discern what’s truly important.
And in perhaps the ultimate indictment on our culture, the Arlington National Cemetery and the Holocaust Museum issued appeals two weeks ago that users not search for Pokemon at these hallowed sites of remembrance. The fact that it even needed to be said only affirms Postman’s prophecy.
Look, I was a kid once, so I get it on one level. Games are fun and Pokemon Go is pretty cool. So if your kids are playing it, don’t panic. But if they’re addicted to perpetual distraction, it’s time to intervene. If you, as a parent see that it is becoming a problem, but don’t do anything to control it, you are ultimately responsible for whatever comes as a result of it. I think it is time that parents take a stand and declare enough is enough. I’m not saying that we need to ban our children from all technology, but the unlimited use of technology by our kids, without parental supervision is just asking for trouble. I submit that the next generation could actually be dulling themselves to sleep from reality. Perhaps they are even amusing themselves to death.