In 1985, author Neil Postman wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Showbusiness, a book which “is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right”, that it is the former author’s Brave New World, not the latter’s Nineteen Eighty Four, that had made the right prediction about where culture and civilisation was headed – that we would not need to be controlled by an oppressive regime, because in reality we would not need controlling – we would be willingly enslaved, compliant and agreeable, trapped by “man’s infinite appetite for distractions“.
As I have discovered a similar idea lies at the heart of Infinite Jest – a book i’ve been reading, and one I’ve briefly discussed before . It only took me 400 or so pages to discover what was actually happening, but I got there. The book’s title, as well as being a reference to Hamlet, references a film made by a character in the novel, a film so dangerously entertaining that people literally expire watching it. They cannot drag themselves away and even in light of physical mutilation they continue to watch. A very literal translation, or application probably, of Postman’s central thesis.
In my previous post I mentioned that some of Foster Wallace’s predictions about media were scarily accurate. The central theme of the book was arguably his most accurate. Whilst no such film exists, the Internet and the Black Mirrors we carry around in our pockets conspire to create a similar effect; as bandwidth increases we have the ability to create, distribute, and consume as much entertainment as we want, an infinite amount.
The characters in the novel are in their own individual ways, addicts. Addicted to drugs, drink, to sport. The film which is central to the book is perhaps the most damaging of all those things. In the book, those watching the film never hit rock bottom – unlike those addicted to Drugs or Drink. It is therefore more dangerous. Whilst it would be naive of me to suggest our love of funny animals on the internet is as bad or damaging as being addicted to something like Heroin – the side effects of this habit are not yet known. Nicholas Carr suggests it will change our brains forever. Clay Shirky worries we’ll never be bored again, something which is actually a useful emotion to experience from time to time, an emotion which helps us think, be creative even.
Postman, and indeed Foster Wallace, wrote their works in the TV era – in the Youtube era, the chance that we could be ‘amusing ourselves to death’ is unfortunately all too real.