“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…


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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