In Amusing Ourselves to Death, a prophetic work on the impact of television on culture, the late media scholar Neil Postman compared two dystopias. One was George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, a world of strict thought control and surveillance where dissent was drowned under screams of torture. The other was Aldous Huxley’sBrave New World, a culture of permanent distraction, immobilized by entertainment and diminished by superficiality. One society was watched by Big Brother; the other entertained by it.
Postman found Orwell’s vision irrelevant to western democracies. Modern society, he said, was less a prison than a burlesque. Like Huxley’s nightmare vision, culture was being impoverished by distraction and trivia, and thought devalued. The problem wasn’t so much entertainment as the habit of mind that resulted from being permanently stimulated and amused, leaving little space for reflection.
The case against television may have been overstated. It was after all a passive medium and individuals were free to walk away. Internet too in its first incarnation had limited claim on our lives. But things have changed dramatically with Web 2.0. We no longer just consume information; we also create it. Barriers to entry are lower and technical skills are no longer necessary. Combined with smart phones and wireless technology, we are in the midst of an epochal change. We are dependent on technology in a way we have never been before.
We are living in a more connected, better informed, and less intolerant world. At a time when states are growing insular, erecting new walls, people are able to interact more and more across borders. Where once there was the fear of cultures in the developing world being overwhelmed by Hollywood and MTV; today Hollywood is itself being reshaped by its encounter with new visions and art forms from across the world. Technology also has an emancipatory potential, as demonstrated by Wikileaks and events in the Middle East.
Yet Huxley’s warning is perhaps truer today than it has ever been. In a connected world, we’ll never suffer from the lack of information; but this can be a mixed blessing. An excess of information can be disempowering unless we have the capacity to process it into coherent ideas. Building this capacity will be the biggest challenge of classrooms in the digital age.
There is a tendency among youth to treat the web as a substitute rather than a supplement for memory. Since information seems always just one Google search away, the effort that goes into studying a subject, gathering, facts, parsing them, and processing them into useful knowledge often seems superfluous. Information is frequently confused for knowledge
This outsourcing of mental activity encourages intellectual laziness. An unfiltered medium has something for everyone. It is possible to find psychological reinforcement on the web through authorities to back any point of view, however erroneous. This confounds scepticism, precludes further enquiry, and confines everyone to the ghettoes of their own prejudice.
How then does one go about shaking people out of their comfort zones?
For all the vagaries of relativism, there is such a thing as truth; and there are habits of mind that equip us to look for it. No one is naturally endowed with these qualities; they are learned. The challenge for every educator is to inculcate them in students. The test is greater in the digital era when everyone is looking for—and often finds—pre-processed answers. It therefore becomes imperative for classrooms to focus on the process rather than outcomes. An answer should be less important than the thought process that leads to it. It must demonstrate analytical rigour and methodological discipline. Student’s minds must be exercised in the same way athletes are prepared for competitions. Mental agility, resilience, and dexterity can only come from repeated encounters with contrary opinions, open-ended questions and challenging practical dilemmas.
To truly harness technology, students must be both distanced from and immersed in it. Teachers must use their authority to turn classrooms into a space where students can step back and reflect on all the information they have imbibed. At the same time students must have a robust enough training in digital technologies to know both their potential and limitations. Only in this way will they gain the intellectual confidence and technical skills necessary to produce useful knowledge amid information excess. A brave new world need not be a nightmare; it may actually be a better world.
– Muhammad Idrees Ahmad has a doctorate in media sociology; he heads the International Journalism program at De Montfort University.