The Politics of Distraction

With George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), two scenarios for future political power are placed before readers. Few have stated the contrast between the two novels better than Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves To Death:

“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, 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, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that our fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.”

While Huxley’s Brave New World was written almost twenty years before Orwell’s 1984, it has become clear that Huxley’s novel was more prophetic than Orwell’s novel. In effect, modern political power is exercised through distraction rather than directive. An important question to explore in our era of distraction is whether distraction has been planned endeavors of the modern political machines or whether politics simply uses a modern phenomena to its advantage. In other words, is there a politics of distraction?

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One of the first things to look at here is what one might term the distraction industry. Not really an industry perhaps as much as a set of industries and technologies engaged in constantly “taking our eyes off the ball” so to speak. I suggest three major candidates here: 1) social media 2) entertainment and 3) sports.

Social media is really what much of the Internet has developed into. Watching faces staring at smartphones everyday is more than confirmation enough about this distraction. As Nicolas Carr notes in the October 6, 2017 WSJ, “The smartphone has become a repository of the self, recording and dispensing the words, sounds and images that define what we think, what we experience and who we are.” The promises of the early years of the Internet to deliver information, progress and a new utopian type of connected community has evolved into digital communities of distraction where selfies, Tweets and Likes dominate more than anything else. Various distractions like FaceBook, Twitter and YouTube have become weapons of mass distraction.

A second candidate of distraction are the movies, plays and television shows of the entertainment industry. The industry has always been about distraction but in the early years, this distraction was confined to certain venues like movie theaters and stages. With the rise of the Internet, entertainment has left the theaters and stages and can now be viewed anywhere on a smartphone 24/7.

Finally, a third part of the distraction industry is sports. Like the movies, sports used to be confined to playing fields. A game would come and go and that would be it. Now, sports are discussed all the time on a host of television programs. Games are predicted, analyzed, discussed over and over and, like the entertainment of Hollywood’s stories, can be viewed anywhere, all the time.

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Social media, entertainment and sports. Silicon Valley, Hollywood and the NFL. It is not surprising that the three distraction “candidates” have close ties to political power today. Is there a politics based on distraction? Is distraction the new basis for political power? It seems we are still using the model proposed by George Orwell’s 1984 to think about politics today. It is the paradigm that dominates our thinking based on visible structures of power. Yet more fruitful and enlightening is Huxley’s Brave New World model. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, those watchdogs of tyranny in our culture are alert to many sources of attack. In the end, though, as Huxley notes,they all “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.”

(Further reading … “Our Minds Can Be Hijacked” from The Guardian; “How Smartphones Hijack Our Minds” the Wall Street Journal and “Studies Show Smarphones, Social Media Cause Brain Drain,” from Etcentric.)



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