In the introduction to Postman’s classic Amusing Ourselves to Death he compares the futures presented in two sci-fi novels to make a point about the direction he sees our society going. He contrasts George Orwell’s 1984, in which oppressive governments use technology to control people and information access with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in which citizens welcome technology and drugs that control them. Postman argues that Orwell’s fear of technological control would come from outside is less likely than Huxley’s fear that technological control would ultimately come from within each one of us.
A Culturally Viable Alternative
The only problem with Postman’s metaphor is that no one today is familiar with Orwell or Huxley. In order to make Postman’s point understandable, I think it would be helpful to shift to the medium of film and choose movies that are common enough that most people will recognize them.
In place of Orwell’s 1984, I would suggest The Terminator. Though the original is 25 years old, James Cameron’s vision of a future controlled by oppressive technology embodied by Arnold Schwarzenegger is still common knowledge for most of us. The Governator clearly represents the worry of technological oppression from outside, and the heroes in the stories are concerned with preserving our humanity.
In place of Huxley’s Brave New World, an fun choice would be Wall-E, but it is not as ingrained in our culture and it’s message is almost too obvious. Instead, I think the Wachowski Brother’s The Matrix does a better job of portraying humans welcoming technological control. It’s hard to believe that this movie is already 10 years old, but who can forget the image of millions of humans living in pods connected to and powering the Matrix? Although the heroes in the story want to be freed from their oppressors, one of the movie’s great statements comes when the character Cypher (played by Joe Pantoliano) tries to betray the heroes for the chance to be reconnected to the Matrix and made unaware of the true reality of human suffering. He prefers to jettison his humanity for a false world of technological comforts.
Today and Tomorrow?
Cameron’s Terminator makes for great entertainment and a spooky vision of technology taking over the world through guns and metal. But just as Postman argued that Huxley’s portrayal of a technological takeover which is welcomed by humanity is more probably, I think that The Matrix offers a clearer portrait of the trajectory of today’s world.
For all the good our gadgets and social networks do, do we not feel at times as though they are taking over the best parts of our lives?
There is no Governator holding a gun to our heads shouting, “You must be checking the Twitt-ah every oww-ah!” Instead, we are the ones who find it hard to turn it all off. Have we not become just a little bit like Cypher in our desire to be connected all the time? Does this not betray how much we love our technology sometimes more than even our humanity?
Postman was of course not arguing that we should sit around wondering which future to fear. Instead he was using those visions of the future as a way of understanding our present. Similarly, our comparison of The Terminator and The Matrix is designed to help us ask good questions about where we are headed in our own lives.
Are we being fully human in a way that honors the image of God imprinted upon us? Do we use technology to glorify God through redeeming areas of human life or do we allow technology to slowly replace our God-given limitations? Are we tempted to live a life disconnected from the pain and difficulty of reality in favor of easy and fast electronic stimulation?
Which trajectory do you see yourself on? Can you think of a better illustration of our world?