Infinite appetites for distraction

In 1958, Aldous Huxley published a series of reflections on the themes of Brave New World, his classic dystopian novel. Revisiting the question of propaganda within democratic societies, he warned that “early advocates of universal literacy and a free press envisaged only two possibilities: the propaganda might be true, or it might be false.” In fact, as Huxley had presciently noticed, a much larger threat lay in “the development of a vast mass communications industry, concerned in the main neither with the true nor the false, but with the unreal, the more or less totally irrelevant.” Far too little attention had been paid to “man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.”

Several books build on Huxley’s insight, including the 1985 classic Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by the US media critic Neal Postman. Although the era of broadcast television was relatively new, Postman worried that an “information glut” would erode civic engagement and  that any society which allowed ubiquitous television to become its new normal would suffer from “diminished social and political potency.” Postman’s jeremiad was widely dismissed as Luddite handwringing, but time has vindicated nearly all of its claims.

As digital infrastructure has surpassed the reach and influence of television, it has exposed our susceptibility to escapism and time-wasting. Postman believed that only “a deep and unfailing awareness of the structure and effects of information” would allow us to use the new media sensibly, but digital platforms take great care to hide their delivery systems, often to the point of invisibility. In fact only  a tiny fraction of the technocrats who oversee our new digital infrastructure understand the algorithms, bots and other factors that affect the flow of information that we take for granted in this new century.

Lest such distortions sound harmless, consider any of the following facts: US investigators into foreign interference in the 2016 elections found that Russian trolls deliberately polarized online forums by simultaneously posting  contradictory material – such as #bluelivesmatter and  #blacklivesmatter content and arguments; the tech blog Gizmodo reports that Ashley Madison – a site that facilitates adultery – “created more than 70,000 female bots to send male users millions of fake messages, hoping to create the illusion of a vast playland of available women”; in 2017 Twitter tracked “more than 3.2 million suspicious accounts globally per week” – double the figure from the previous year; and the Internet Society warns that there are more than 100 billion spam messages which traverse the internet each day, “up to 85 percent of global daily email traffic.” Finally, consider the fact that one expert has calculated that the cryptocurrency Bitcoin, consumes more than three times the energy of actual gold mining, per dollar mined.

Other consequences of our absorption into digital abstractions are no less worrying. A 2016 survey by the US National Safety Council found that 47 per cent of respondents felt comfortable texting (manually or through voice controls) while driving. Since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that distracted driving is responsible for nearly one in five injury-causing traffic accidents, it is no surprise that the NSC recommended a complete ban on all cellphone use, including hands-free devices. But even when devices are not actively imperilling us, they still make extraordinary claims on our time. A 2011 market research survey found that 9 out of 10 Americans aged 2-17 play video games regularly; a separate survey found that the average game time per day was just under 75 minutes.

Searching for “the antidote to a culture’s being drained by laughter” Postman feared that the American public had “not yet assimilated the point that technology is ideology.” Little has changed in 30 years. In 2008, the legal scholar Jonathan Zittrain warned that the Internet’s future “is not one of generative PCs attached to a generative network [but] one of sterile appliances tethered to a network of control.” Today many of us are tethered inseparably to such appliances and correspondingly beholden to their networks of control. The rise of populist demagogues and extreme rightwing parties is one warning sign, falling voter turnouts, the glut of fake news and the inexorable rise of digital escapism – social media platforms, video games – are others.

There are no simple solutions to the problems that Huxley and Postman identify, but small societies can nevertheless avoid some of the more obvious pitfalls. In Guyana and the Caribbean it is still relatively easy to escape from our bubbles, to engage with other people, buy from local producers and volunteer for charities. As we imagine a post-petroleum future filled with cheap bandwidth and all the latest technology, we should also be aware that it will also introduce challenges and problems that we are ill-equipped to deal with.

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