Thursday, January 20, 2011

Not Orwell vs Huxley; but Orwell-Huxley

Orwell famously provided a disturbing view of the future in 1984 where the state controlled by Big Brother rules by fear through surveillance that removes all privacy, mind-numbing propaganda ('Newspeak') and censorship to remove independent thought. It's usually seen as a diatribe against Stalinism.

Huxley wrote Brave New World depicting a world where science and technology maximize pleasure, and all of life (including sex) is about 24/7 consumption.

In his essay on Western society, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman argued that Huxley, not Orwell, had been right. Certainly the casual observer of modern Western culture would find it easy to argue that hedonism rules much of our decision making. The utilitarianism that Huxley was writing to battle is still a dominant guide to many in public and private life who seek 'the greatest happiness of the greatest number' and - in the absence of generally accepted moral absolutes - consider that everything is permissible, provided that others are not harmed.

So far, I'm persuaded by Chapter Three of Evgeny Morozov's The Net Delusion where he argues that this is a false polarisation.

He quotes Naomi Klein, 'China is becoming more like [the West] in very visible ways (Starbucks, Hooters, cellphones that are cooler than ours), and [the West is] becoming more like China in less visible ones (torture, warrantless wiretapping, indefinite detention, though not nearly on the Chinese scale).'

Entertainment is cheaper than surveillance, and the Internet is supremely efficient at keeping people amused and distracted. He concludes, 'The Internet has provided so many cheap and easily available entertainment fixes to those living under authoritarianism that it has become considerably harder to get people to care about politics at all.'

I'm persuaded that the Internet-era is much more nuanced than casual observers believe: while blogs and social networks allow dissidents to express their view; the electronic media also empower much easier search and surveillance, whether by the secret police of authoritarianism, or the commercial interests of marketers.

How will this tension play out?