In the Reactocene, no one can hear you scream
Or, it’s Aldous Huxley’s world, we’re just living in it
In his remarkable 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death Neil Postman wrote:
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…
Dr Essai weighs the matter and declares game, set, match for Mr. Huxley. (At least as pertains to the United States. One imagines Mr. Orwell observing modern China with the satisfaction of being right and the horror of being right.)
Of course, it has not escaped the doctor’s notice that the American Right has been on a book-banning binge, yanking volumes from schools and libraries, assured that it can reassert dominion over a culture in flux if it can lead us back to what every true American knows: U.S. history began in 1776, not 1619; the Civil War was fought for states’ rights but as a lucky side-effect ended racism and any other reason for black folk to complain; marriage is a man-woman thing, just ask God; and this whole icky transexual business will go away so long as we never mention it to the kids. Shhhh. And yes, returning to Orwell, government, corporations, institutions do their damnedest to control information and conceal inconvenient truth.
But to Huxley’s point, a dismaying number of Americans exhibit no interest in books. Even people who fancy themselves readers spend so much time glazed before digital “content” they may read barely a dozen books a year. Meanwhile we are inundated with news and banalysis and forecasts and context-free information, grateful (as instructed) for how our magnificent internet has put all the world’s knowledge “at our fingertips,” as if knowledge were a napkin.
Dr Essai observes all and suggests that digital technology, plus the tireless and unselfish work of cynical opportunists in politics and business, has ushered in a new social epoch. Other thinkers have considered the havoc wreaked on the planet by humans and declared that the list of geologic epochs — Paleocene, Pleistocene, Pliocene, and so on — should replace Holocene with a new designation for our time: the Anthropocene. The doctor abides, and proposes a similar rebranding of our present social epoch. Welcome to the Reactocene. Where no one can hear you scream because everybody’s screaming.
Around 1993, technology evangelists, and commentators unburdened by any thought of second-order consequences, hailed the internet as a democratizing revolution. Power to the people! Death to the gatekeepers! Mes amis, aux barricades! Now anyone, not just snooty critics, could review a book or a restaurant or a movie, anyone could become a pundit or a government watchdog, anyone could publish a screed or broadcast a rant and reach a potential audience in the tens of millions. Imagine the profound dialogue that will emerge from this digital Agora! Revel in the wisdom that will emerge once we’ve shoved aside those elitist pissants with their Ivy League degrees and given righteous voice to the Common Man. You could rise from nothing and with just a laptop and a smartphone become an influencer. What a great time to be alive.
In 2023, we grapple with what actually happened. Had we availed ourselves of this miraculous access to books and scholarship and science and art, to intelligent ideas and cogent reason, we might have become a more thoughtful culture and been the better for it. Instead, we buried ourselves in the incoherence of 24-hour news and a biblical flood of undifferentiated information and the brain-dead babble of social media. We have become hyper-reactive, distracted and emotionally ragged 24 hours a day.
Reading a book or a long serious article is an act of consideration and reflection and deferred judgment. Sitting through a three-hour Lincoln-Douglas debate was the same, as was attending a Chautauqua lecture, or watching Leonard Bernstein discuss a symphony on television, or reading an evening newspaper. Common Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries did all those things because the culture encouraged it. Parents enjoined their kids to think before they opened their mouths because that was proper behavior. There was no shortage of morons with megaphones and their deluded followers, but people appreciated the value of coherence. Bad behavior still abounded — as a people, we Americans have always been a dark, spooky bunch — but millions of us acquired cultural capital that made our lives better.
Our culture in the 21st century encourages reaction — the hot take, the instant analysis (an oxymoron, but never mind), the social media graffito. A culture that used to reward reason and reflection now rewards the emotional blurt. The degree to which reaction has shoved reason overboard reflects the extraordinary level of anxiety that pervades American life. And if politicians and the owners of capital know anything, it’s how to exploit fear to mute the public and get them to fall in line. The best aspects of our culture and society have been battered, and Dr Essai doesn’t have any bright ideas for what to do next. That will take someone smarter.
The doctor tries not to romanticize the past. Neither does his scribe, Mr K. On summer evenings in the 1960s, Mr K’s working class neighbors did not gather to drink beer and discuss Schopenhauer or Thomas Paine. But consider this: his father was a sign painter and his mother had an eighth-grade education. They would have scoffed at the idea that they were intellectuals. Yet they subscribed to two daily newspapers, morning and evening, and a dozen magazines. They made sure their 8-year-old son had his own library card, and when he was 12 they bought him his own 20-volume encyclopedia. His mother frequently was a member of a mail-order book club like Book-of-the-Month or The Literary Guild, and his father enjoyed gift subscriptions to The National Observer and The Manchester Guardian and read Eric Hoffer. Sure, they never missed The Lawrence Welk Show. They also never missed Meet the Press.
Nor does Dr Essai pretend to purity of media consumption. When the work is not going well, he can lose hours to internet McReading and adorable cat videos. Knowing how to pronounce “Goethe” doesn’t make him Goethe. But he thinks it’s worth pondering how we could do better, and the risk to our democracy if we do not. Postman wrote, “Huxley grasped, as Orwell did not, that it is not necessary to conceal anything from a public insensible to contradiction and narcoticized [sic] by technological diversions.” Huxley wrote, “People will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”
To which a smart person can only blurt, Oh-oh.