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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

“amusing ourselves to death”: why many won’t care about the loss of Net neutrality… but why we must

Whether or not the news that Google and Verizon are apparently colluding on chopping down Net neutrality ends up being true, or only half true, the fact remains that we as a society are in danger of drowing under not a flow of information but a flow of entertainment. And most of those happily consuming corporate-produced mainstream entertainment either won’t notice if Net neutrality disappears, because they’ve already been happily consuming whatever the big studios and big networks are throwing at them, or else they won’t care, because they have no interest in the more challenging indie stuff that will be throttled. (Not that everything that’s indie is challenging or dangerous to the status quo… but it’s certainly true that very little that is mainstream is challenging or dangerous.)

It’s already hard for the little stuff to compete with the big stuff… but it will be immeasurably harder if the big stuff gets a priority right-of-way on the Internet.

I stumbled across a cartoon the other day by Stuart McMillen comparing the dystopias of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984. A small part:

Please check out the whole thing. It’s a bitter pill but a trenchant one. The text comes from the 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.]. It’s about “the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.” From the foreword:

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.

Honestly, we’re already at Huxley’s nightmare even with Net neutrality intact. One of the first comments at McMillen’s site in response to this cartoon begins:

Though i am unfamiliar with Huxley and his work…

*headdesk*

And I’ve been stunned to learn that more than one of my readers didn’t understand what I was talking about when I used the phrase “bread and circuses” to describe a movie or a TV show. And that’s where we’re at now. Just as the Roman authorities used distributions of free bread to hungry citizens and the distractions of gladiatorial games and Christians getting thrown to the lions as a way to keep a citizenry placid that might otherwise have rebelled against the crimes and oppressions they were subjected to, so today we have nonnutritional carbs kept artificially cheap by government subsidies — hello, high-fructose corn syrup and bleached flour! — and violent movies, reality TV, World of Warcraft, and Monday night football to keep the populace sated and preoccupied. Instead of getting outraged over TARP and home foreclosures and endless wars and jobs that are never going to come back (though you could go join the endless wars for a paycheck!), we’re all, in the aggregate, worried about who is going to be judging American Idol next year.

It may sound strange or contradictory — even hypocritical — for a film and TV critic, especially one who can be very passionate about the film and TV that I love, to be saying “Our entertainment will be the death of us, and maybe it’s already too late.” I don’t think it is.

The stories we tell are important. Really important. Like maybe the most important thing about us. We’ve been telling stories, I have no doubt, since we could talk (and maybe we pantomimed stories before we could talk). I think that, more than tool use, telling stories is what distinguishes us homo sapiens from other animals on Earth… and I suspect that if/when we learn that dolphins and whales or other animals also tell stories, that will — or should — cause us not to try to find another thing that distinguishes us but to instead expand the category of “sentient, intelligent being” to include doplphins or whales or whoever. (I like to think that whalesong are epic tales of life under the oceans. Perhaps the whales are singing the whale equivalent of War and Peace or Hamlet or Pride and Prejudice to one another?)

So our stories are not going to go away. But precisely because they are so important, so vital an aspect of who we are, we shouldn’t allow them to be used against us, either. And that is what’s happening today. Our need for stories — our hunger for them — has been turned into a weapon.

There doesn’t need to be any active conspiracy for this to be true. There doesn’t need to be a boadroom in Hollywood conferencing-calling a secret chamber in Washington DC and hoards of old white guys actually colluding in planning out the next season of TV shows and Michael Bay movies that will best keep 300 million American numb and quiet for this to be true. (There could be, of course. But you don’t have to be a tinfoil nutjob to see how this could work.) The system is self-perpetuating: once someone accidentally hit on the right distraction, the one that mass audiences enjoyed so much that they are willing paid for its like over and over again, one that really did work to deflect attention from other things going on that are better able to get on without too much attention paid to them… well, the fix was inadvertently in.

That doesn’t mean that those stories can’t be enjoyable. It doesn’t mean we can’t love the stories. But we have to look at them critically, ask ourselves, Why this particular story at this particular time? Losing Net neutrality means it will be harder for voices to counter the dominant perspective, the one that doesn’t want you to think too hard or too long about the stories it’s spoonfeeding you. Those counterarguments might come from critics like me, or from other storytellers (filmmakers, musicians, novelists, and so on ), or just from other consumers of culture who are willing to question. But those counterarguments are not going to come from within the infrastructure dedicated to maintaining its own status quo. And that infrastructure will be the one with the loudest bullhorn.

Hey: That infrastructure already has the loudest bullhorn. Losing Net neutrality will make it even louder.



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  • Der Bruno Stroszek

    Great, great post.

    I remember reading the author Will Self talk about a stand-up comedy set he did as part of an event in London, where he did some material about the acquisition of the Evening Standard newspaper by a former KGB agent. He was startled to find that none of the younger members of the audience had heard of this story, and none of them really cared.

    And why should they? A consumer who grows up with the internet consumes a deboned information structure, where a news search might rank a story from the Weekly World News alongside one from the BBC with no indication that one source is widely trusted and one isn’t. Many online news articles don’t carry any sort of a byline, just like they didn’t in the very early days of newspapers. They could be lifted straight from a wire agency. They could be written by a committed, serious journalist. They could be written by a dishonest hack at the behest of a corrupt proprietor. Who cares any more? Who knows where the flow of information comes from these days?

    Ironically, if this continues we’ll soon be at the point where it would take an investigative journalist to find out who is writing the journalism we’re reading.

  • I remember reading the author Will Self talk about a stand-up comedy set he did as part of an event in London, where he did some material about the acquisition of the Evening Standard newspaper by a former KGB agent. He was startled to find that none of the younger members of the audience had heard of this story, and none of them really cared.

    I find it more than a little ominous how little attention has paid to that story on this end of the Atlantic–even by the likes of John Nolte and company.

    That said, great post, MaryAnn.

    Should I find it ominous that I’ve seen two lists of “100 Must-Read Science Fiction Books” on the net during the last month and that both of them appear to have omitted Brave New World?

  • Ahem.

    I find it more than a little ominous how little attention has been paid to that story on this end of the Atlantic–even by the likes of John Nolte and company.*

    *Not that I’m endorsing the likes of John Nolte. Still it’s amusing to see what the Right will ignore to go after the most persistent threats of Dixie Chicks and Sarah Palin jokes…

  • JoshDM

    You remember what I said earlier about timeless, etc. etc.

    THIS.

  • I don’t think it’s a case of either Huxley or Orwell being right. 1984 does have the Outer Party ruled by fear, but the proles are kept politically inactive by cheap alcohol and pornography. Huxley and Orwell each explored a society based on one type of tyranny. Here in the real world we’re blessed by both: endless carrots for the vast majority, and a swift crack of the stick for the few who aren’t rendered inert by the mainstream.

  • A consumer who grows up with the internet consumes a deboned information structure, where a news search might rank a story from the Weekly World News alongside one from the BBC with no indication that one source is widely trusted and one isn’t…Who cares any more? Who knows where the flow of information comes from these days?

    Librarians do. Use ’em. :-)

    Just found out that there’s a credibility engine in the works, built on recommendations from reference librarians and experts in various fields. Looking forward to seeing how well it goes.

  • Huxley’s novel presupposes that by giving people everything they want and eliminating the idea of self, they can be yoked and used towards the benefit of a select few who understand the levels of servitude that allow their “utopia” to exist.

    THAT almost seems like a dream compared to what it looks like our society is heading towards. At least in Brave New World, there were people in CHARGE, who had a vested, long term interest in keeping the engine running and in good condition so they can perpetuate their fortune and control.

    The reality we live in is that there is no one in charge. That the ‘idea’ that every man is his own master has driven a majority of our culture towards massive egocentric behavior and the belief that pursuit of one’s own happiness to the exclusion of others is not only a driving force but the ONLY driving force. The sheer population of the country and the world versus it’s declining per capita resources and wealth make this goal infeasible. But still the drive must exist, so people engage in self-deception to convince themselves that even as they destroy their fellow citizens and the world around them to feed their momentary wants and desires, they are still getting closer to their goal that every man may one day be an emperor.

    The loss of real reporting, the deluge of self-indulgent entertainment, these are all things that exist not because someone is trying to control us, but because IT IS ALL WE ASK FOR ANYMORE. The feelings of loss or depression that might accompany learning that people are starving in the street EVEN IN YOUR OWN CITY are considered undesirable, so they are not reported. Nobody is consciously hiding the truth, they are simply answering the demand for news that entertains and doesn’t make people sad.

    This debate over Net Neutrality is, in the grand scheme of things, a symptom of many larger problems. Not the least of which is the idea that something incredible, a valuable resource built by many different companies with divergent interests, should be able to be commoditized and sold so the very rich companies get a better wedge of the resource than the less rich companies. (To say nothing of microscopic slice awarded to private businesses.)

    The idea of community has been entirely lost! This is in stark contrast to Huxley’s dystopian future. In Brave New World, community is king to an almost communist level. Nobody is even allowed to THINK they want to stand alone. But we went a worse route. Nothing exists for the benefit of those who might need it someday. EVERYTHING must, in some way, profit someone so they can get closer to their goal of being richer than everyone else they know. Nothing can exist without a cost. Even CHARITY is a business now that individuals can get rich off of.

    I don’t mean to be a huge downer, but the point is that we have to think for ourselves. Whether we get our open internet or not, we HAVE to learn to reject unreliable information. Entertainment doesn’t have to change, but our opinion of it must.

    In this way, there is nothing at all wrong with a film/TV critic making a stand. In fact, all the critics need to stand up and take notice. Critics are the new reporters.

    In a world where all media is entertainment-driven, who else other than the critics can start a movement to make a change?

  • nyjm

    In reference to “how do you know it’s credible?” and “the importance of narrative”,” it sounds high-falutin’, but a very useful tool that sadly languishes in grad-school classrooms instead of in high-school ones is Critical Discourse Analysis.

  • MaryAnn

    I don’t mean to be a huge downer, but the point is that we have to think for ourselves. Whether we get our open internet or not, we HAVE to learn to reject unreliable information.

    You’re absolutely right. Net neutrality isn’t the total solution for what ails us, but it’s the barest beginning, at least. If we lose it, we’re really fucked. There won’t be any way to get it back, and there won’t be any way to push back against whatever the powers that be determine is the national conversation.

    In a world where all media is entertainment-driven, who else other than the critics can start a movement to make a change?

    I’m not sure that critics can do it either, actually. I don’t know who can.

  • Lisa

    Hasimir Fenring – I was just about to say the same thing!

    I agree with the importance of story telling and also what you say about any active conspiracy. I also think that the way things are is because it’s the cheapest easiest ways of doing things. Crap food is cheaper than decent food, etc. It’s what the market demands.

  • RogerBW

    Lisa, the real problem is that the really cheap crap chops out the people who would have paid a bit more for reasonably-good. So the sales of reasonably-good drop, and the price has to go up.

    For example, there’s no middle ground in shoe quality between your made-in-China generics that’ll wear out in a few months and your hand-made cost-the-earth that will last forever. Similarly, most of the time you can get cheap nasty meat or expensive meat, not medium-price meat. Don’t know what it’s like in the USA, but in the UK you can never get ripe peaches – because they’re always picked too early and frozen for transport, so that they go straight from bullet-hard to mouldy, and that’s all that shops ever stock.

    Der Bruno Stroszek, I think it is a good thing that “a news search might rank a story from the Weekly World News alongside one from the BBC” – because that same search can rank something from Ben Coldacre alongside GSK’s latest press release about Avandia.

  • RogerBW

    For “Coldacre” read “Goldacre” of course.

  • LaSargenta

    Great post. Great comment thread so far.

    Although this might seem like it is totally out of left field, the whole net neutrality morass makes me think of the KMFDM song Dogma.

    With nothing but matchbooks and sarcasm in our pockets
    …We need something to kill the pain of all that nothing inside
    We all just want to die a little bit
    We fear that pop-culture is the only culture we’re ever going to have
    We want to stop reading magazines
    Stop watching T.V.
    Stop caring about Hollywood
    But we’re addicted to the things we hate

    Nothing to say and no way to say it
    …You are more than the sum of what you consume
    Desire is not an occupation
    You are alternately thrilled and desperate
    Skyhigh and fucked

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