In the foreword to his classic book Amusing Ourselves to Death, the cultural critic Neil Postman proposed that it was Aldous Huxley, and not George Orwell, who had more accurately foreseen the tribulations of the future. “Orwell,” Postman reflected, “feared those who would deprive us of information.” Huxley, by contrast, “feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.” The likely consequences of these prognostications were, necessarily, divergent. “Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us,” Postman submitted. But “Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.” In the early years of the 21st century, it is tough to mount a solid counterargument against Huxley’s supposition. 1984 may be often cited by critics of linguistic corruption and security theater, but it ultimately forecast a landscape that is ascetic and austere and, in truth, wholly unfamiliar to us. In fact, our present arrangement is quite the inverse of that imagined by Orwell. In 2015, stimulation is quotidian and ubiquitous. Information is cheap. Choice is the happy norm. And the truth is a luxury not of the well connected, but of the astute.
Were men invariably predisposed to patience and to reason, this would be of little concern. In the abstract at least, the notion that an average member of the electorate may possess the sum of human knowledge inside the pockets of his jeans is a salutary one. But, as Huxley anticipated, man is flawed, his appetite for distraction is infinite, and his interest in discernment is limited by his lust for feeling. “An unexciting truth,” Huxley noted in Brave New World Revisited, “may be eclipsed by a thrilling falsehood,” especially in such circumstances as that truth’s being disseminated across a medium that is “concerned in the main neither with the true nor the false, but with the unreal, the more or less totally irrelevant.” When we speak warmly of the Web and its consequences, we imagine that rationality will inevitably prevail. Often, we imagine in vain. Have we been liberated? Or have we been drowned?