Friday, September 21, 2012

Our Infinite Capacity for Distraction

H.G. Wells, often called the father of science fiction, was born this week in 1866. In his first novel, The Time Machine in 1895, Wells’ unnamed, time-traveling protagonist journeys into mankind’s distant evolutionary future. There he discovers the Eloi, a race of frail, childlike adults living amid the decaying remnants of civilization, enslaved to the brutish Morlocks.

He is dismayed by the Eloi’s utter lack of intellectual curiosity. He comes across a gallery of “brown and charred rags” which he is shocked to realize are “the decaying vestiges of books.” This is the result, he theorizes, of adapting to an environment, conquered by technological advancements, which no longer offered any natural challenges, and thus fitness and intellect were no longer necessary for survival. Humanity had lost the intelligence and vitality of the time traveler’s own era, that of the post-industrial revolution.

Also this week, in 1917, young Aldous Huxley was hired as a schoolmaster at Eton. Huxley would go on to become a celebrated novelist, writing dozens of books, including that staple of high school reading lists, the dystopian classic Brave New World. One of Huxley’s students at Eton was Eric Blair, who would also go on to be celebrated by his pen name George Orwell. Orwell, of course, wrote his own famous dystopian novel, 1984.

But Orwell’s future was a more straightforwardly totalitarian one than Huxley’s. In his 1985 book about the corrosive effects of television on public discourse called Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman wrote that Orwell underestimated “man’s almost infinite capacity for distraction.” It won’t be necessary, Postman suggested, to enslave future generations in the traditional manner using brutal coercion – not when we willingly embrace our own intellectual subjugation through the apathy induced by petty diversions:

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 egotism. 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.

It doesn’t take a neo-Luddite to see that our love affair in America with technological distractions keeps us glued to our gadgets – our laptops, iPads, smartphones, Xboxes, and more. I’m certainly not immune to such seduction. Sometimes they engage our intellectual curiosity; but too often we are simply mesmerized by mere “spectacle,” like rubberneckers at a highway accident, and spectacle rots true intellectual curiosity. Allow me to make the distinction: “Jeopardy” is intellectually stimulating; the reality show “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” is spectacle.

Television, for example, presents my two-year-old with some very engaging educational material, but there is also truth to the old criticism that it is “a vast wasteland.” When she is not bewitched by something mindless, she is less cranky, more intellectually and physically engaged in creative play, and even sleeps better. That applies to adults too, for that matter. The trick lies in recognizing and resisting that which is merely hypnotizing.

Neither H.G. Wells nor Aldous Huxley could possibly have envisioned the technological marvels we take for granted today, and which have enriched our lives in many ways. But the insights presented in their most famous novels warn us that allowing the virtues of self-reliance and intellectual curiosity to atrophy will ultimately leave us, like the Eloi, deprived of our freedom and our humanity. 

(This article originally appeared here on, 9/21/12)