Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Orwell's Television

Guest post:


Orwell got it partly right. But it's not the use of two-way monitors that would impose social uniformity and mental numbness in modern society. Rather, I think it is the sheer ubiquity of the old-fashioned one-way idiot box. Granted I'm not a Luddite and enjoy watching DVDs. But the difference here is that I have control over what's in my house.

The problem I'm talking about is finding TVs in banks, post offices, doctors' offices, restaurants and even restrooms. My Orwellian experience of the week was discovering that a giant TV had been installed in our employee cafe. Whenever I have a frozen lunch I go there before the place gets crowded around noon. Now with the TV on it's always crowded. The omnipresent screen is worse than physical claustrophobia; it's a kind of mental suffocation. Worse yet, there is a kind of collectivism in that we are all forced to hear the same media pabulum 24/7.

Perhaps the real metaphor is not Orwell's Oceania but Huxley's Brave New World, with its comfortable big-brotherism enforced by mass entertainment. I think the lesson here is that civilization is only possible with civility. It cannot be enforced directly by the state, though it can be assisted a great by the upholding of the basic laws on the books. As for the marketplace, it is no more than a mirror of a society's morals. Yet it seems to me that real liberty is possible only where we draw a line as to where others may intrude in our personal space. I have nothing against marketing in a store, but I don't like it on my doorstep or on my phone. As for public places, that becomes a little trickier. I'm not sure I can point to an objective standard here. It's mainly intuitive.

But one thing I am sure of—a hallmark of totalitarian society is that the public sphere crowds out the private and it becomes increasingly difficult to achieve a degree of detachment in daily life where one's thoughts are truly one's own.