Christian Living

The Age of Trivial Distractions

Author Amy K. Hall Published on 06/18/2024

I’m finally reading Neil Postman’s 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (don’t judge me!), and it’s amazing how prescient he was about where our society was heading. Writing before the internet filtered all of our discussions on serious topics through social media and provided every trivial amusement we desired whenever we desired it, not even he could have dreamed how right his warnings would turn out to be.

Huxley vs. Orwell

Postman argued that Aldous Huxley’s warning in Brave New World, rather than George Orwell’s in 1984, would turn out to be correct. Here’s his summary of the difference between the two:

Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

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.

In case you don’t recognize our society in the description above, Huxley and Postman were right. We are doing quite a good job of happily submitting to our own destruction.

Our Culture’s Radical Transformation

As our culture radically transforms from a print-based society to an image/entertainment-based one, we Christians should feel out of place because we have always been people of the written word. As Postman says, “The God of the Jews was to exist in the Word and through the Word, an unprecedented conception requiring the highest order of abstract thinking,” and this creates a particular type of culture:

The differences between the character of discourse in a print-based culture and the character of discourse in a television-based culture are also evident if one looks at the legal system.

In a print-based culture, lawyers tended to be well educated, devoted to reason, and capable of impressive expositional argument….

The insistence on a liberal, rational and articulate legal mind was reinforced by the fact that America had a written constitution, as did all of its component states, and that law did not grow by chance but was explicitly formulated. A lawyer needed to be a writing and reading man par excellence, for reason was the principal authority upon which legal questions were to be decided….

I will try to demonstrate by concrete example that television’s way of knowing is uncompromisingly hostile to typography’s way of knowing; that television’s conversations promote incoherence and triviality; that the phrase “serious television” is a contradiction in terms; and that television speaks in only one persistent voice—the voice of entertainment…. Television, in other words, is transforming our culture into one vast arena for show business. It is entirely possible, of course, that in the end we shall find that delightful, and decide we like it just fine. That is exactly what Aldous Huxley feared was coming, fifty years ago. [Emphasis added.]

Now that we’re in what Postman called “the Age of Show Business” (and the internet has taken this far beyond television), we’ve moved away from the written word…and away from reason. We can all see the result.

Fight the Poison in Your Life

I saw an article last week about a remote tribe in the Amazon that was generously given the internet for the first time. Now the young people have “gotten lazy,” are hooked on porn, games, and social media, and won’t get off their phones. And still, the elders who are complaining about these things are saying, “But please don't take our internet away…. We can't live without the internet.” We are facing an extremely powerful and addictive poison here, and the effects are not easily fought.

Are you concerned about our culture and looking for some way to make a difference? You aren’t powerless! You might not be able to fix our entire society, but you can take steps to fight this in your own life. Put your phone down. Maybe even delete some apps that suck your time away on mind-numbing games or other trivialities. Read an honest-to-goodness book that requires thought and time to read. Go visit a friend in person. Step outside and look at some nature. Start a book club. Write in a journal. Figure out what’s important and be intentional about pursuing it. Slow down. Think.

Do your part to be a person who thinks deeply, a person of reason, and a person of civil discourse. In short, be a person of the written word because God made us a people of his written Word.