The Future of Liberty in a Post-Literate Culture

by PETER FARMER December 14, 2012

"The danger to America is not Barack Obama but a citizenry capable of entrusting a man like him with the Presidency. It will be far easier to limit and undo the follies of an Obama presidency than to restore the necessary common sense and good judgment to a depraved electorate willing to have such a man for their president."  Prager Zeitung newspaper, Prague, Czech Republic

"If a nation expects to be ignorant and expects what never was and never will be. If we are to guard against ignorance and remain free, it is the responsibility of every American to be informed." Thomas Jefferson

"Words are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas?" Josef Stalin

Everywhere one turns these days in this networked world, it seems as if there is someone using a smart phone, tablet computer, or similar digital device. This writer has now learned to be wary of motorists who believe that they can drive and text at the same time, and when walking in the local community it is now an everyday occurrence to run a gauntlet of people walking with their heads down, each person focused on the glowing screen in front of him.

I am no Luddite - I use the internet frequently and own a smart phone - but at heart, this writer is simply an analog man trapped in the digital age. Being of a certain vintage, I can easily remember life before the digital revolution, and could revert back to it if necessary without too much hardship. Being a late-comer to the digital party, perhaps I am able to see not only the opportunities posed by such technological wonders, but the dangers, too.

As a people, Americans have long-held an optimistic belief in technological progress. We are justly proud of our achievements in science, technology and invention. We have taken a laissez-faire attitude to emerging technologies - often harnessing them to change - and hopefully improve - our lives, and drive economic growth. However, these benefits come with a cost - one of which is that we have allowed technology to influence and alter our lives in unexamined and perhaps dangerous ways. Technology is always a two-edged sword; think of the new drug which cures an intractable disease, but also leads to the creation of a new class of addicts. 

In the case of the electronics and communications revolution, now in its second century, the telegraph, phonograph, motion pictures, radio and television wrought epochal changes in how human beings live and interact with one another. Literally, these and similar technologies have helped humankind conquer time and distance. As profound as these developments have been, the digital age has taken them even further. A scant fifty years ago, a television screen the size of a wristwatch was the stuff of "Dick Tracy" and comic books; today, it is de rigueur for the typical teenager, who yawns at such routine things.

What is wrong with such developments, you ask? Isn't progress a good thing?

Yes and no. It bears repeating: technology is always a two-edged sword. For every problem a given technology solves, it creates a new one. For everything it gives, something else is lost or destroyed. In the case of the now-ubiquitous computer screens, televisions and digital devices, we already know the benefits and efficiencies they bring, but what about the costs? Specifically, what is gained or lost when a society grows reliant on this technology? In their 2009 book, "The Next Conservatism," the late Paul Weyrich and William Lind offer some possible answers to these questions. 

Weyrich and Lind acknowledge that computers have conferred enormous benefits upon ordinary people; the internet has allowed conservatives to by-pass gatekeepers who made sure no conservative voice was heard in the traditional media, to name one example. However, the authors also express grave concerns regarding these new and powerful tools. Their words are worth quoting at length:

The generation reared on video games and computers reads little; one wonders if much of it has the attention span to read anything serious. A consequence will be a people cut off from its past. Western culture is mostly a written culture, contained in its great literature, beginning with the Old and New Testaments and the works of the classical Greeks and Romans. When those works go unread, the content of the West's culture runs out into history's sands... A post-literate people will have little ability to think logically. Reason and logic demand words; images - which are the language of the video screen - feed emotions. Is it any wonder that Americans no longer think but feel? A people cut off from its past, largely unable to reason and guided primarily by emotion, will be easy to manipulate. In fact, people will be as easy to manipulate as the images on their video screens.1 

Weyrich and Lind end the discussion by making reference to two works of fiction which seem less-fictional by the day, namely Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" and George Orwell's "1984." The authors note that America of the early 21st century seems closer and closer every day to Huxley's dystopian vision, and by noting that in this "Brave New World" to come, psychological conditioning and the manipulation of images are some of the chief means of control exercised by those in power.

Continuing, Weyrich and Lind observe that as the computer revolution proceeds and "virtual realities" proliferate, a cardinal principle of Western civilization is being violated - the notion that there is one objective reality. Why live in the real world when a potentially more-attractive virtual one beckons? 

There are other, equally-worrisome trends which portend poorly for the future of freedom and individual human autonomy in this age. Converging technologies in computers, communications, satellites, robotics and drones have given governments the world over methods of tracking and controlling their populations that Hitler, Stalin and other totalitarians could only dream of. Many of these surveillance technologies are incorporated into the latest digital devices and gadgets consumers cannot wait to purchase. Others have been embedded in the environment around us, sometimes without our knowledge or consent.

Wedded to the amazing new technology are ever-more-refined and sophisticated methods of political propaganda and psychological conditioning. Ominously, Barack Obama and his team have proven to be masters of dark arts of propaganda.

In fairness to the Democrats and the left, the Republicans have long-used such techniques - but in Obama they have seen their most-modern and sophisticated refinements. The potency of Obama's celebrity has only elevated the effectiveness of these methods and strengthened the cult of personality surrounding him. 

Last but certainly not least, the glut of information has made it more difficult than ever to penetrate the fog of misinformation, spin, propaganda, advertising and fluff that pollutes the air around us. Much popular entertainment resembles nothing so much as an open sewer. Our dysfunctional fascination with celebrity and the blurring of real news with "infotainment" blurs the line between fact and fiction even further. The cognitive fog in which we live thickens.  

Emptied of historical memory and knowledge of the greatest achievements of western civilization, tracked by the devices around him, and distracted and misled by the data fog swirling about him, the person on the street becomes an empty vessel into which can be poured whatever thoughts, perceptions and ideas the ruling class finds convenient or desirable.

If knowledge is power, what is the absence of knowledge? Can an ignorant people remain free? I fear that we, as a people, are destined to find out. These are dangerous times in which we live.

1 - "The Next Conservatism" Paul Weyrich and William Lind. St. Augustine's Press. South Bend, Indiana. 2009. 72-73.

Copyright 2012 Peter Farmer

Peter Farmer is a historian and commentator on national security, geopolitics and public policy issues. He has done original research on wartime resistance movements in WWII Europe, and has delivered seminars on such subjects as political violence and terrorism, the evolution of conflict, combat medicine, and related subjects. Mr. Farmer is also a scientist and a medic. 



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