In the foreword to his classic book Amusing Ourselves to Death, the cultural critic Neil Postman proposed that it was Aldous Huxley, and not George Orwell, who had more accurately foreseen the tribulations of the future. “Orwell,” Postman reflected, “feared those who would deprive us of information.” Huxley, by contrast, “feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.” The likely consequences of these prognostications were, necessarily, divergent. “Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us,” Postman submitted. But “Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.” In the early years of the 21st century, it is tough to mount a solid counterargument against Huxley’s supposition. 1984 may be often cited by critics of linguistic corruption and security theater, but it ultimately forecast a landscape that is ascetic and austere and, in truth, wholly unfamiliar to us. In fact, our present arrangement is quite the inverse of that imagined by Orwell. In 2015, stimulation is quotidian and ubiquitous. Information is cheap. Choice is the happy norm. And the truth is a luxury not of the well connected, but of the astute.
Were men invariably predisposed to patience and to reason, this would be of little concern. In the abstract at least, the notion that an average member of the electorate may possess the sum of human knowledge inside the pockets of his jeans is a salutary one. But, as Huxley anticipated, man is flawed, his appetite for distraction is infinite, and his interest in discernment is limited by his lust for feeling. “An unexciting truth,” Huxley noted in Brave New World Revisited, “may be eclipsed by a thrilling falsehood,” especially in such circumstances as that truth’s being disseminated across a medium that is “concerned in the main neither with the true nor the false, but with the unreal, the more or less totally irrelevant.” When we speak warmly of the Web and its consequences, we imagine that rationality will inevitably prevail. Often, we imagine in vain. Have we been liberated? Or have we been drowned?
It is said that the chief virtue of the Internet age is that anybody may express himself and be heard — regardless of his relationship with the gatekeepers. But it is also fair to say that the chief vice of the Internet age is that . . . anybody may express himself and be heard — regardless of his relationship with the gatekeepers. Should one wish to, one can find online the complete Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers, as well as the works of Karl Marx and Immanuel Kant; one can pull up the unabridged works of Adam Smith and Frédéric Bastiat and John Maynard Keynes; one can read the Lincoln–Douglas debates in their entirety, find the constitution of the Confederacy, and study the output of Ida B. Wells — and, ceteris paribus, one can do all of these things gratis. The days in which the many were indebted to the largesse of an Andrew Carnegie or a John Passmore Edwards are, happily, over. And yet, encumbering these delights like ivy on a crumbling Tuscan villa is a whole lot of untrammeled nonsense. Contrived and mistranscribed quotes abound, along with historical and legal and scientific offerings that simply do not pass muster. For the laymen in any field, it can be difficult to detect which is which. And understandably so. The Web is where we are supposed to go to find the truth — a virtual Library of Alexandria for the modern era — and yet there are no red flags to indicate the impostors. Imagine, if you will, what might happen if your local athenaeum replaced a good portion of its books with parodic or mendacious equivalents, and then interspersed the perfidious volumes with the genuine articles. That’s the Internet.
There is an elementary reason that the Web’s many miscreants spend so much time photoshopping photographs, fabricating quotations, and manufacturing downright falsehoods, the better to fool the masses: It works. Because such a small premium is placed on verisimilitude, the likes of Mark Twain, George Washington, Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, and Oscar Wilde have all had attributed to them a series of sentiments that they never even contemplated but that are now broadly regarded as their own. Contemporary figures are no safer from the game. Thanks to aggressive online republishing, Sarah Palin is believed to have claimed that she could see Russia from her house (87 percent of Obama’s voters in 2008 believed that she had said this); Dr. Ben Carson is supposed to regard Obama’s presidency as a greater blow to blacks than was slavery (as is now the way, this meme came with a fake date-stamp and citation); and Barack Obama is widely understood to have been sworn into office on a Koran. By the time that next year’s presidential elections are over, the biographies of many of our public figures will have been altered considerably.
The chief virtue of the Internet age is also its chief vice: that anybody may express himself and be heard — regardless of his relationship with the gatekeepers.
The consequences of this deceit are manifold. These days, political campaigns are spending an increasing amount of their time rebutting explicit lies that, because the “retweet” and “share” and “send” buttons are so easily accessible, can go from concept to international fruition in the blink of an eye. Political debates, meanwhile, are becoming decreasingly useful: When people obtain so much of their information from snazzy memes and selective snark, why would anyone bother staging Firing Line? In fact, even ostensibly august institutions are falling afoul of the silliness. Having encountered a specious meme that was initially promulgated by a wildly anti-Semitic Facebook user, NPR’s Diane Rehm yesterday stated as a stone-cold matter of certainty that Democratic presidential aspirant Bernie Sanders was an Israeli citizen. In her prompt mea culpa, Rehm conceded her mistake. “I had read [it] in a comment on Facebook,” she acknowledged. “I stated it as fact.”
If the Internet is to be our guide, both Mark Twain and Winston Churchill observed that “a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” Whichever one of them actually said it, however, it seems clear that the maxim is twice as true in the age of Twitter and Snapchat as it was a century ago. Today, the ready availability of interconnected publishing tools has enabled almost anybody to plot a grand hoax and to get away with it. Just as Stalin “knew” deep down that the Kulaks were undermining his glorious social experiment and thus felt comfortable improvising the necessary proof, so do our modern show-trialers consider it tolerable to provide false evidence in order to secure their readers’ affections. In certain circles, it is simply taken for granted that George W. Bush is a moron who could not be trusted to sit the right way on a horse. In consequence, it is deemed acceptable to invent hysterical instances of stupidity that never in fact occurred. In alternatively polarized quarters, it is taken as a given that Hillary Clinton’s time at the State Department was an unmitigated and inchoate disaster. As a result, hanging fraudulent quotations around her neck is fair game. Gun controllers, “rape culture” advocates, Obama “birthers,” 9/11 “truthers,” instant deforestation experts — all of these groups now have a means by which to fill the holes in their theories and to convince the public of the truth that they know is out there somewhere but that they cannot substantiate using the normal means. To have a modem and a laptop nowadays is to have a magic wand, with which you can bend the world to your preconceptions and make history better. Believe that your least favorite Republican is the sort of monster who would praise incest? There’s a meme for that.
In the late 19th century, Oscar Wilde is reported to have responded to a witty comment issued by the painter James Whistler by remarking, “I wish I had said that.” Whistler, who was convinced that Wilde was noting his anecdotes and jokes and employing them in his public addresses, did not miss a beat before retorting caustically, “Never mind, Oscar, you will have said it.”
How little did he know.