July 15, 2008

Intellectual Freedom advocacy in a Huxleyan world

A favorite debate of pessimistic sophomores, or perhaps sophomoric pessimists, is as to whether our society and its future is more like George Orwell’s 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. It’s such a common juxtaposition and so simple to talk about it that I bring it up at the risk of terribly oversimplifying things. But Orwell and Huxley knew each other (Huxley was the elder), and these are two important satiric novels from the same time period dealing with the same questions. Together they provide an easy framework for talking about two visions of dystopia that relate to social questions of today.

For Orwell, the threat of totalitarianism was of a society controlled by fear, where people knew that they were oppressed but had lost the freedom to stand up against the forces of oppression. He was clearly worried about forces that pull us toward out-and-out fascist or communist totalitarian societies. For Huxley, the threat came from another direction – the narcotic pleasures of an affluent society and people’s susceptibility to the soft propaganda of advertising and group identity. For Huxley, the evil to be worried about was not fascism or communism but something that he saw our own capitalist societies quietly sinking into, like sleep. Huxley would have been at home with some of the basic critiques, if not the language, of the Frankfurt School thinkers’ responses to advanced capitalism (though Huxley was not writing about capitalism per se).

In both novels, society has cut people off from nature and from their own souls, and has taken away their freedom and anything more than a semblance of democratic control. In both novels, society is overtaken by order, but the feel of this order and the manner in which it is maintained are different.

Both novels are also concerned, at certain levels, with the construction of knowledge and the way that truth is communicated or effaced in society. That is to say, they are both concerned with intellectual freedom.

There certainly have been some 1984-like developments in American society since Orwell was writing, and these have accelerated since 9/11/2001. The Federal government has given itself more powers of surveillance and has eroded constitutional protections against tyranny.

Our American Library Association, in keeping with its commitment to intellectual freedom, has spoken up against provisions in the USA PATRIOT ACT and other legislation and executive orders that have eroded our civil liberties during this time. And going further back, ALA and the Freedom to Read Foundation have fought and continue to fight censorship efforts by community members uncomfortable with some ideas present in libraries, and to protect unrestricted access to the internet by opposing the overuse of content filters. ALA’s Intellectual Freedom establishment is working hard to defend our society against a future that is like George Orwell’s 1984.

I will lay my cards on the table and say that I think the greater threat to our freedom, at least at present, is not a 1984 scenario, but is a threat much more like Huxley’s Brave New World. This isn’t to say that ALA shouldn’t fight censorship, or be opposed to filtering, or work against the PATRIOT ACT. It should continue to do those things. But I definitely think that ALA’s Intellectual Freedom establishment should broaden its viewpoint and look at the ways in which information as entertainment gradually works against information literacy and self-government, and the ways in which market forces can limit rather than expand the availability and use of ideas. It has begun to do this, to a certain extent; the report, “Fostering Media Diversity in Libraries,” published a year ago, is a good example of some thinking from ALA’s IF community that is cognizant of the nature of threats to intellectual freedom in a Huxleyan world. The sub-committee that produced it has since been disbanded, but it remains a step in the right direction. More thinking along these lines will require creativity – because the Huxleyan threat is by nature less obvious, more subtle, and more complex – and a certain amount of courage, because people will militate for their next entertainment fix. (“I want my MTV!”)

Unfortunately, ALA is also taking steps in the wrong direction. Just as an example, ALA is presently putting resources into a campaign to help library users prepare for the transition to digital broadcast television. Television is probably the one greatest social development since Huxley wrote Brave New World in 1931 that has pleasurably herded us in the direction he described. It is difficult to see what digital broadcast television has to do with libraries, and it seems as though ALA is participating in this campaign as a way of apologizing for being about books, and to try to disassociate libraries from boring, antiquated print media and the discipline of scholarship that goes with it. Aside from that, in a general way, I think that some of the trends that we are seeing in libraries that are based on “feel good” measures may end up short-circuiting and impoverishing independent thought in a narcotic way, rather than supporting democracy as they are advertised as doing. These are not simple questions, and require looking into things more deeply than most people have the time or the inclination to do.

If I’ve piqued your interest in Aldous Huxley, I can recommend a reading for you on the web: Brave New World Revisited, a series of essays that he wrote about modern Western society, looking back on the vision of his novel from the vantage point of 1958. I have found his ideas very useful.

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10 Comments »

  1. Excellent posting, thanks.

    I always tend to think of the possibilities new media have to offer, when it comes to attraction the generations of today to our libraries and I still believe you have to get their attention first, in order to ‘seduce them’ to our services and ability to teach information literacy. When unseen you’re unheard…

    But you’ve got a very good point. I’m a fan of Huxley :-)

    Comment by Edwin — July 15, 2008 @ 2:32 pm

  2. Great post (and this sophomoric pessimist agrees with your conclusion).

    Neil Postman, as you probably know, makes this same comparison in the foreword to Amusing Ourselves to Death: “This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.”

    Comment by Kevin Arthur — July 15, 2008 @ 10:55 pm

  3. I forgot about that in Amusing Ourselves to Death. That is probably where I first got this idea.

    Comment by Rory Litwin — July 16, 2008 @ 5:37 am

  4. Excellent post and I am glad someone else connected it to Postman. I teach a course that examines the impact of technology on politics and democracy and all three of those titles are on the syllabus. One other thought: I wonder what the gaming community’s response would be to this. More than MTV, gaming seems to be the greatest distraction as well as our greatest opportunity.

    Thanks for the post. I’ll think on it and blog it.

    Comment by Sarah Cohen — July 16, 2008 @ 8:56 am

  5. Great post, and I agree with you for the most part. I do have some caveats about libraries’ roles in the new rollout of digital broadcast television: I see libraries acting as community information sources in this particular situation. The rollout of digital television is something that will likely only really affect the poorest people in our communities, and I appreciate that libraries are stepping in to try to make sure they are educated about the changes and are being served in the transition. Like it or not, television is a source of information, not just entertainment, for a lot of people, especially those who can’t afford computers and internet access at home. I think it’s important to ensure they continue to be able to access information this way.

    Enough of my rambling, though, as I really enjoyed your post.

    Comment by laura k — July 16, 2008 @ 9:10 am

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  8. Great post, Rory, and I immediately thought of Postman, though I think his argument that “Huxley was right, Orwell wrong” was stronger *before* 9/11/01. The Orwellian trends are a bit late to the game, but are catching up to run side by side with the Huxleyan dystopia.

    Brief aside: “I want my MTV” = oh, man, you…I too–REALLY date yourself with that declaration. ;-)

    Anyway, I actually don’t believe the two narratives are necessarily mutually exclusive; I need think only of THE MATRIX, for a metaphorical example of that synthesis–hard to believe that film was made pre 9/11/01 but it was; Even harder to accept next year it will reach its 10 year anniversary since the original release.

    The Huxleyan narcotic is to keep passive mainstream America (Gaming in Libraries!), while Orwellian brutality (agents of the Matrix appearing seemingly from nowhere) is for those who actually wake up and try to act.

    Comedian Bill Hicks is long dead but his stand up routine (lovingly archived on YouTube, along with so much of “classic” television culture) is just as poignant today as it was when he delivered those lines in the early 1990s.

    Comment by JJR — July 18, 2008 @ 7:24 pm

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