Friday, February 1, 2008

The big debate

Scored a 7th row seat at the debate yesterday. Always interesting to see the media machine working: tons of satellite trucks in front of the Kodak Theatre, hundreds of Obama and Hillary supporters being silly and screaming their respective names, lines after lines, celebrity sightings (Stevie Wonder, Jason Alexander, Leonardo di Caprio, Christina Applegate, just to name a few) and Democrats doing a lot of self-congratulating.

When you're up close at that spectacle, you understand how hungry and how powerful the TV machine is. It's about the show, it's about the lights, the celebrities, the little tiffs, the looks between Hillary and Obama. Utter bullshit.

On my way home, I was thinking about the visionary Neil Postman and his book: Amusing ourselves to death - Public Discourse in the age of show business.

Here's his foreword:

We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn't, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.
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.

Social Media and Web 2.0 tools give me the hope that sometime in the future our votes will be based on real conversations about issues and challenges. Currently, we're discussing $400 haircuts.

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