The modern world is a kluge of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 with screens everywhere in which people submerge themselves, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World with “soma” of all sorts to keep us drugged and happy, and of course George Orwell’s 1984 with constant surveillance and the “two minutes of hate,” directed mainly at “the enemy,” especially the enemy within, known in 1984 as Goldstein (for some Americans today, “Goldstein” is Donald Trump; for others, it’s Hillary Clinton; for a few, it’s Ted Cruz or perhaps all of the above).
Dystopic elements characterize our American moment, hence the appropriateness of dystopic science fiction novels. Bradbury was especially good at poking holes in the idea technology was in essence a liberating force. He captured the way people might submerge their identities within screens, neglecting the real people around them, even those closest to them, for the “virtual reality” of infotainment. Huxley was keen to debunk mass production as a liberating force, but his invention of “soma,” a mood-enhancing drug that leads to detachment and inaction, captured our overly medicated ways. (I can’t watch network news without being bombarded by drug ads that promise me release from pain or acne or other nuisances and hence a better life, as long as I take this pill or use this inhaler.) Finally, Orwell captured the total surveillance state, one driven by fear, obsessed by enemies created by the state to cow the masses. Perhaps the darkest of the three, Orwell left little hope for the “little man” oppressed under the jackboot of a militaristic and totalitarian state.
The times are not quite that dark in America today, but these three classic novels offer warnings we’d do well to heed. An aspect of these dystopias we most definitely see in America today is the degeneration of news, of information, of knowledge. As a society, America is arguably less fact-based today than at any point in its history. Even as we’re immersed in information via the Internet, the news itself has become shallower, or trivial, or frivolous, when it’s not out-and-out propaganda.
I grew up watching the news. Before going to school, I used to watch the “Today” show in the morning in the 1970s. It was a decent show. Some real and serious news made the cut. Now it’s largely a laugh-fest featuring celebrities making sales-pitches. The news as soap opera; the news as vanity.
To state the obvious: The network “news” has been dumbed down. Image is nearly everything. Stories are far shorter and without context. Designed for people with limited attention spans, they’re also designed to keep people watching, so they feature sensationalism and “quick hits” — nothing too taxing or disturbing.
Of course, the real news is still out there, as Tom Engelhardt notes in his latest probing article at TomDispatch.com. It’s just much harder to find on the network “news”:
What’s left out? Well, more or less everything that truly matters much of the time: any large, generally unphotogenic process, for instance, like the crumbling of America’s infrastructure (unless cameras can fortuitously zoom in on a bridge collapsing or a natural gas pipeline in the process of blowing up in a neighborhood — all so much more likely in an age in which no imaginable situation lacks its amateur video); poverty (who the hell cares?); the growing inequality gap locally or globally (a no-interest barrier the WikiLeaks-style Panama Papers recently managed to break through); almost anything that happens in the places where most of the people on this planet actually live (Asia and Africa); the rise of the national security state and of militarism in an era of permanent war and permanent (in)security in the “homeland”; and don’t even get me started on climate change…
Coming to grips with the real news would require thought and necessitate action – changes, radical ones, to the status quo. And what powerbroker wants that?
Focus instead, America, on your screens. Take your soma. Hate your Goldstein. That’s the method driving our madness. Dystopia, anyone?