Commentary

Two Dystopias, One Cup

In the foreword to his 1985 book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” Neil Postman argued that we’re not in danger of being squashed beneath the boots of Big Brother, but instead should fear our own passivity.

He laid out the idea by contrasting the central themes of George Orwell’s “1984” and 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.”

Lately though, it feels like there’s less a dichotomy of the two dystopias. Worse than one or the other, we’ve been living in the overlapping middle of a Huxley-Orwell Venn Diagram.

As Postman wrote, “Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy,” and boy did we!

But that Orwell, he seemed to be onto something too.

The revelations of NSA spying leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden have shook the world at its core. Additionally, according to The Intercept, more than 40 percent of the 680,000 people in the government’s Terrorist Screening Database have “no recognized terrorist group affiliation,” which falls nicely in line with Orwell’s fear, as outlined by Postman, that “we would become a captive culture.”

This everyone’s-a-suspect mentality has trickled down to a more local level as well: As unearthed by Dig Boston, attendees at last May’s Boston Calling music festival “were all unwitting test subjects for a sophisticated new event monitoring platform.”

“We’re not talking about old school black and white surveillance cameras,” the Dig reported. “More like technology that analyzes every passerby for height, clothing, and skin color.”

And the Orwellian mechanics of this type of machine don’t merely operate behind the curtain, as evidenced by what’s going on in Ferguson, Missouri at the moment.

Peaceful protesters demanding justice for Michael Brown, an 18-year-old man shot dead by police under hotly debated circumstances, have been met with tanks, rubber bullets, and tear gas from an increasingly militarized army of cops.

In short, Postman explored “the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right,” but what if they both were?

[Photo Credit: Business Insider]