May 9, 2023
During the third quarter of Super Bowl XVIII in 1984 (the Raiders beat the Redskins 38-9), Apple released what is largely considered the greatest commercial of all time. The goal was simple and ambitious: shatter the fears people had about computers engineering compliance, conformity, and control through surveillance. Directed by Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, 1982), the commercial recreated a dystopian scene from George Orwell’s 1984, a novel that introduced “Big Brother,” what has become a cultural euphemism for the abuse of surveillance techniques by a powerful authority, traditionally a government. In the commercial, real skinheads hired in London—used to emphasize their lack of individual identity—march to their seats as the voice and face of “Big Brother,” projected by a large telescreen, compels their automatonic movements:
“Today we celebrate the first glorious anniversary of the Information Purification Directives. We have created for the first time in all history a garden of pure ideology, where each worker may bloom, secure from the pests of any contradictory true thoughts. Our Unification of Thoughts is more powerful a weapon than any fleet or army on Earth. We are one people, with one will, one resolve, one cause. Our enemies shall talk themselves to death and we will bury them with their own confusion. We shall prevail!”
And just as “Big Brother” crescendos, a sledgehammer, thrown by a colorful, athletic young woman who is being chased by “thought police” throughout the one-minute commercial, smashes the screen and “boom.” The skinheads watch the explosion but don’t move. All that happens next is Apple makes a promise:
“On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984.’”
I used to show this commercial to my AP Language and Composition students. It is a perfect example of rhetorical manipulation, a play on emotions, not reason. Brent Thomas, the art director for the advertising agency Apple hired for the commercial, admitted they “set out to smash the old canard that the computer will enslave us. We did not say the computer will set us free—I have no idea how it will work out. This was strictly a marketing position.” Regardless of the commercial’s intention, what it implicitly suggests is that the computer, specifically the Apple Macintosh, will be a tool of freedom, not abusive surveillance (Hypothetical: Should a band of colonizing aliens reach Earth and see us on our iPhones, strapped to our Apple Watches, AirPods in our ears, would they think of us as free? If we retorted, “Freedom means the ability to choose what we want to do,” would they have a very different understanding of freedom than we intended?) Consider Ayn Rand’s perspective in 1946:
“The greatest guilt today is that of people…who support plans specifically designed to achieve serfdom, but hide behind the empty assertion that they are lovers of freedom, with no concrete meaning attached to the word; the people who believe that the content of ideas need not be examined, that principles need not be defined, and that facts can be eliminated by keeping one’s eyes shut.”Rand’s quote is more specifically about collectivism, and though techno-enslavement is a form of collectivism, the exploration of that connection is not the purpose of this article. Full … Continue reading
Individuals interested in avoiding compliance, conformity, and control take note. What the commercial unfortunately reinforces is the “old canard” that freedom is simply the smashing of authority, a freedom from, not a freedom to (e.g., take responsibility). The former catalyzes entropy (chaos, disorder), while the latter pushes against it.
Perhaps the more frightening portion of Thomas’s quote is the nonchalance, the “I have no idea how it will work out,” meaning, computers may or may not enslave us, who’s to say? Thomas’s strictly “marketing position” is akin to Meyer Wolfsheim’s in The Great Gatsby, who probably thought as much about throwing the 1919 World Series. “I remembered,” Nick Carraway, the narrator, says, “that the World Series had been fixed in 1919, but if I had thought of it at all I would have thought of it as a thing that merely happened, the end of some inevitable chain. It never occurred to me that one man could start to play with the faith of fifty million people—with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe.”This reality, that individuals are behind these seismic shifts in our world, is why recent concerns about AI, specifically the possibility of an artificial general intelligence (AGI), are warranted. I don’t believe Brent Thomas or anyone involved in selling Macs held anything more than a “marketing position,” whether for their company or for their personality—as Walter Isaacson unveils in his biography of Steve Jobs,
“[Jobs] fancied himself a rebel, and he liked to associate himself with the values of the ragtag band of hackers and pirates he recruited to the Macintosh group. Even though he had left the apple commune in Oregon to start the Apple corporation, he still wanted to be viewed as a denizen of the counterculture rather than the corporate culture.”
In short, the 1984 commercial was a lie—an effective lie, a compelling lie, an entertaining lie—but still a lie. And this lie continues. The computer revolution, its public genesis marked by this famous clip, and the subsequent tidal wave of personalized technology, apps, social media, artificial intelligence, ChatGPT, ad nauseam, have made for an incredibly engaging, alarming, and destabilizing “innovation theatre” over the last four decades. Its promise to expand our community and our friendships has weakened the very concepts themselves; its promise to give access to information for the masses has made that information less valuable, reliable, and meaningful; its implicit promise to reduce the suffering of the individual has caused a meaning crisis alongside a mental health crisis; its promise to free us from the drudgery of human life has fallen short. We know this, and yet, we also believe we are the freest individuals that ever walked the planet. This is what Orwell meant by doublespeak in 1984. And while we can list the ways new technologies, perhaps especially Apple products, have increased surveillance and intellectual slavery, essentially reneging on the initial promise, doing so is less fruitful, I think, than exploring how these technologies have shaped our values, and more specifically, values around education.
In Violence (2008), Slavoj Žižek, the rockstar Slovenian philosopher, correctly identifies “the central human right in late-capitalist society [as] the right not to be harassed.” I could rewrite this as “freedom from harassment,” the freedom from uncomfortable demands on the individual.
This is the 21st-century definition of freedom, which has emerged not because it’s good for humans, for schools, for businesses, for neighborhoods, or countries, but because recent technology has solidified convenience as an essential value and therefore relegated harassment, or suffering, to a burden of the past. Convenience translates to a reduction of suffering, and while our brains will often make the convenient choice (i.e., the choice that uses the least amount of energy while simultaneously stabilizing predictability), we know the formula for happiness is something like, how we engage in suffering = meaning. Technology, throughout history,Our slide into “decadence” is not recent or new and is the historical path of most empires. Margaret Wheatley provides a full description of the “age of decadence” in Who Do We Choose to Be? … Continue reading has tried to sell us this formula: decreased suffering = increased meaning. But by its nature and by grace, the world requires suffering, and the only way to avoid that suffering is to avoid the world. And that is impossible. For humans, there is only how we choose to engage with the inevitable suffering we inherit when we are born and what comes our way on life’s journey. This is the “absurd heroism” of Sisyphus, the mythological character damned by the gods to roll a boulder up a hill and when reaching the top, have the boulder roll right back down—for eternity. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus, from the existentialist viewpoint, challenges us to rethink how we ought to view Sisyphus:
All Sisyphus’ silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing. Likewise, the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols […] There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night. The absurd man says yes and his effort will henceforth be unceasing […] I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burdens again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself, forms a world. The struggle toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy. (emphasis mine)
Meaning is found in Sisyphus’ decision to elevate his mindset while pushing the boulder “toward the heights.” Once he “contemplates his torment,” the idols are silenced, idols that attempt to distract him from the reality of his situation. Meaning is contingent on embracing the burden of suffering, however imperfectly at first and then evolving to an elegance that reveals man’s “silent joy” with and “yes” to the mountain before him. This decision is absurd and heroic and uniquely human.
Technology provides relief from this inevitability, a distraction from the boulder and the mountain and the perpetual cycle. Some of us will remember when Sony released the Walkman in 1979, a portable cassette player that revolutionized our experience with music. Sisyphus using a Walkman is a different Sisyphus, perhaps less heroic and less happy because he has distanced himself in an illusory way from his suffering. And though things like music or art or film or whatever temporary distraction we find are necessary respites and can inspire us to embrace the suffering like we ought to, the suffering itself has not been eradicated. The assumption we tend to make is that our reality, our suffering, is a burden and a curse, and distance from it is positive, which is why the writer Margaret Wheatley argues that the “world [is] growing more meaningless as lives are taken over by values of consumption, greed, and self-interest.”So Far From Home: Lost and Found in Our Brave New World, 2012, p. 70. Consumption, greed, and self-interest are necessary outputs when humans frantically run from their suffering. Suffering is our shadow, and like Camus says of Sisyphus, “One always finds one’s burden again.” This is why shameless materialism never brings happiness; it promises happiness because it promises to shield us from the harassment of the world, to end our suffering, but we must remember, the market has a perverse incentive to promise what it can never deliver. And that promise leads businesses and innovators to suggest that suffering can be avoided.
In the same year Sony released the Walkman, Pink Floyd released The Wall, I would argue one of the most prescient albums on our current zeitgeist: we crave freedom from harassment, from the sweat and stench of human life. The album tracks a protagonist, “Pink,” who builds a wall around him to keep him safe from trauma, an overprotective mother, and oppressive teachers, among other issues. Isolation, at the evolutionary level, has never been a viable position. We are social creatures; we have emerged to engage with one another. But isolation and narcissistic individualism have been exacerbated by our tech innovation theatre.Powerful new technologies are not solely to blame for society’s ills (i.e., this is not a neo-Luddite argument). A materialistic and shallow society existed before the personal computer. We can now all stay behind our walls and enjoy a “decaffeinated” life, one that is virtual and not too potent but, importantly, not too dangerous either. A world that is highly predictable, giving credit to the Bayesian Brain hypothesis, that our brains gravitate toward predictable environments. What is more predictable than a virtual world? The belief that we can distance ourselves from suffering is a marketing position, it is not reality. We suffer now because of our distance from suffering. Suffering is agnostic about its form—it will have its pound of flesh. The distance between the individual and suffering is the distance between that individual and meaning (i.e., happiness, satisfaction). For schools, the exponential emergence of this zeitgeist—to remain untouched by the world, to stay comfortable behind a wall of screens, avatars, and digital bits—has had a profound impact.
As a teacher, I have always loved “Another Brick in the Wall,”In 2013, our faculty band at Christ School (Asheville, NC) covered this classic. I think it’s worth a listen: https://youtu.be/RVTKUMqfwCM?t=1380. Make sure to crank it. and while I see the irony and double negative in its most famous line, “We don’t need no education,” this is essentially, like the 1984 commercial, endorsing the notion of freedom as the freedom from authority, from any harassment. I have always wondered, why should you have your pudding before you eat your meat? That seems like a reasonable request from an adult to a child. I make that request of my four daughters nearly every night. But these teachers in the song are “thought controllers,” using “dark sarcasm,” and they must “leave them kids alone.” I don’t endorse their draconian methods—Pink is right to push back against the abuse of authority, but it’s important to remember that there were only “certain teachers who would hurt the children any way they could”—but can teachers make any demands on their students? That had once been their job, to curate suffering into manageable chunks and then to help students handle that suffering in effective ways, but since the technology revolution the teacher’s role has been relegated to the “guide on the side,” rather than the “sage on the stage.”
A quick search on Google Books Ngram Viewer reveals a steady incline in both phrases beginning around the mid-80s.In this search, I used lowercase letters and set my boundaries for “English” from 1900-2019. 2019 is the most recent year available.
This dichotomy is often considered a pedagogical clash: Teachers are either 21st-century (“guides on the side”) or they’re 20th-century (“sages on the stage”) educators. I’ve never met a great teacher, however, that fits nicely into this dichotomy. I believe these poles were created not from a truly pedagogical debate, but because our technology changed, and marketers saw an opportunity to make money. Shifts in the zeitgeist are opportunities for business. Classrooms will need to be renovated, you will need new technologies, you will need an iPad in every child’s hands, ad infinitum, regardless of whether these changes improve learning—the appearance of innovation can be just as powerful as actual innovation. Consider, too, how technologies that endorse the “guide on the side” position look great on a school’s social media account, which again, reveals part of my position: edutech companies … Continue reading While some educators will insist this is pedagogical, I would only fall on the sword that it didn’t begin that way. What I believe has happened is the zeitgeist of a harassment-free life, distanced from suffering, which means a distance from people, too, collided with incredibly powerful technology, technology that has become another brick in the wall.
Unsurprisingly, this graph also correlates with a similar rise in the phrase “student-centered.”Same parameters as before.
While the tech innovation theatre has catalyzed the “guide-on-the-side” and “student-centered” movement and weakened adult authority, it has also increased educational entropy, the tendency for things to fall apart, for the center to crumble, for chaos and disorder to ensue.
William Deresiewicz, author of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, recently wrote,
“Children can’t be children if adults are not adults, but children also can’t become adults. They need something solid: to lean on when they’re young, to define themselves against as they grow older. Children become adults—autonomous individuals—by separating from their parents: by rebelling, by rejecting, by, at the very least, asserting.”His argument also suggests that parents consider themselves rebels as well, so “how do you rebel against parents who regard themselves as rebels? How do you reject them when they accept your … Continue reading
Adults are supposed to behave as the order that pushes back against the chaos of unbridled youth, as children attempt to be free from responsibility. But as more teachers accept their role as merely the guide on the side, they become fellow travelers on the rocky paths of adolescence, stripped of their authority because they never claimed it. Many parents have taken a similar stance; as opposed to a grounding force of moral and ethical wisdom, they have evolved from the aughts’ “helicopter parents” to the new decade of the “lawnmower parent,” clearing the path for their fragile children.
Of course, mama’s gonna help build ‘the wall’.
But children are anti-fragile, and denying them their Sisyphean right is inhumane. “Guides on the sides” and “lawnmower parents” have become another brick in the wall, leaving their children and students wondering, as Pink complains to his mother, “Did [the wall] need to be so high?” The wall keeps students from being harassed by the world. It has been made comfortable by streaming services, iPhones, air conditioning, grade inflation, etc. But life is beyond the wall—just as Prince Siddhartha discovered—and our kids are desperate for the meaning and danger and suffering out there, though they don’t understand these needs—in fact, many probably believe that what they are experiencing is happiness, like Lenina in Brave New World: “I don’t know what you mean. I am free. Free to have the most wonderful time. Everybody’s happy nowadays.” Students are made virtually comfortable—or comfortably numb if we’re using Pink Floyd lyrics—a terrible position for anyone seeking growth. Many of the adults around them, unfortunately, have romanticized and then adopted Holden Caulfield’s position in Salinger’s classic:
“I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around — nobody big, I mean — except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff — I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”
We must stop catching our students before they go over the cliff into adulthood. We must begin to tear down the wall around them, the one we adults have helped build, many of the bricks handed to us by corporate technologists (another artificial intelligence). We must begin to allow them to be harassed by the world. A decaffeinated life is not a life, it’s a simulation of a life. Our technology has become so powerful that we have convinced ourselves that pleasure is the end goal of humankind; that distance from suffering is a net positive; that isolation is not only a feasible position, it is preferable (just imagine how an AI chatbot will reinforce this isolation—safe behind our walls, we can curate virtual friends…this is already happening here is one user’s testimony:
Without any offense toward John, this is concerning to me. To resolve isolation by using the methods that are at least heavily related to the reason you’re isolated in the first place is like, as Žižek has said elsewhere, taking a chocolate laxative for constipation: “‘Do you have constipation? Eat more of this chocolate!’, i.e., of the very thing which causes constipation”. We may call this ouroboric reasoning…we have been prepared for this inevitability by a decade of reinforcement learning, that friendships, real friendships, can be virtual, e.g. social media. Real friendships include harassment. What chatbot is going to tell you when you’re being a jerk, or selfish, or prideful? ).
From Brave New World again:
“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness, I want sin.”
“In fact,” said Mustapha Mond, “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.”
“All right then,” said [John] the Savage defiantly, “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.”
“Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen tomorrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.” There was a long silence.
“I claim them all,” said [John] the Savage at last.
To claim the right to be unhappy seems ridiculous until we realize we are being held captive, enslaved by the incessant desire for pleasures—yet we know we are not quite happy, not quite satisfied, just like we are not quite awake after that cup of decaf. And we saw this coming! A year after the 1984 Apple commercial, Neil Postman published his incredible Amusing Ourselves to Death where he hypothesized that Huxley’s Brave New World was a more likely future scenario than Orwell’s 1984:
[…] Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity, and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be nobody who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would be a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture […].From Ideas Have Consequences (1948) by Richard Weaver: “In our listening, voluntary or not, we are made to grow accustomed to the weirdest juxtapositions: the serious and the trivial, the comic and … Continue reading As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us. (emphasis mine)
Huxley knew, too, why Orwell’s prophecy would not come to fruition. In an interview he gave with Mike Wallace in 1958, he made the same distinction between his and Orwell’s dystopia; he knew well that “you can do anything with bayonets except sit on them!” So Apple’s suggestion that technology would prohibit a 1984 dystopia was an obfuscation of where we were ultimately heading, which was toward a life of infinite pleasure—free from suffering, free “to have the most wonderful time,” an Eden before the fall, before the sweat and stench of life touched us. We bought it, or should I say, “we bit it,” and we are paying for it now. Ideas have consequences, and the idea that a comfortable life, free from harassment, is worth living needs reconsidering. We are witnessing rates of suicide, violence, depression, and anxiety in our young people that justify my claim.
If our brains’ evolution made predictability paramount, then it is unsurprising that we have developed technology to create safe, predictable environmental niches, behind an artificial and virtual wall. Tech corporations have exploited this evolutionary desire to their advantage, and there is no sign that this exploitation will be abated for the sake of all that is good for humanity, which is why, for example, recent advances in artificial intelligence concern me. Though there are many obvious advantages to predictability—and a level of predictability is needed for human flourishing—what we lose in meaning matters. Getting the ratio balanced between predictability and suffering (or engaging with the unpredictable) leads to human flourishing, and recent technological developments have tipped the balance toward the former. The cost is staggering, but like an app subscription we forgot to cancel, we don’t realize we’re paying this cost. A life free from harassment is manufactured, sterile, and inhumane; we educators and parents must begin consciously reintroducing meaningful suffering into our children’s lives, else…
Mama’s gonna make all of your nightmares come true.
Mama’s gonna put all of her fears into you
Mama’s gonna keep you right here under her wing
She won’t let you fly but she might let you sing
Mama’s gonna keep baby cozy and warm. (emphasis mine)
|Rand’s quote is more specifically about collectivism, and though techno-enslavement is a form of collectivism, the exploration of that connection is not the purpose of this article. Full disclosure: I own an iPhone and airpods and am guilty of allowing both devices to enslave my attention and extract my presence from my family, friends, nature, etc.
|This reality, that individuals are behind these seismic shifts in our world, is why recent concerns about AI, specifically the possibility of an artificial general intelligence (AGI), are warranted.
|Our slide into “decadence” is not recent or new and is the historical path of most empires. Margaret Wheatley provides a full description of the “age of decadence” in Who Do We Choose to Be? Facing Reality, Claiming Leadership, Restoring Sanity (2017): “Wealth and power have led to petty and negative behaviors, including narcissism, consumerism, materialism, nihilism, fanaticism, and high levels of frivolity. A celebrity culture worships athletes, actors, and singers. The masses are distracted by entertainment and sporting events, abandon moral restraint, shirk duties, and insist on entitlements. The leaders believe they are impervious and will govern forever. This age also develops the welfare state as imperial leaders build universities and hospitals, give grants to university students, support the young and the poor, and extend citizenship to everyone. When they run out of money, all this benevolence disappears and these institutions shut their doors.” For more on decadence, read Ross Douthat’s The Decadent Society.
|So Far From Home: Lost and Found in Our Brave New World, 2012, p. 70.
|Powerful new technologies are not solely to blame for society’s ills (i.e., this is not a neo-Luddite argument). A materialistic and shallow society existed before the personal computer.
|In 2013, our faculty band at Christ School (Asheville, NC) covered this classic. I think it’s worth a listen: https://youtu.be/RVTKUMqfwCM?t=1380. Make sure to crank it.
|In this search, I used lowercase letters and set my boundaries for “English” from 1900-2019. 2019 is the most recent year available.
|Consider, too, how technologies that endorse the “guide on the side” position look great on a school’s social media account, which again, reveals part of my position: edutech companies have realized that the appearance of innovation in learning is just as effective, profit-wise, as is authentic learning. Innovation becomes merely the sight of something new.
|Same parameters as before.
|His argument also suggests that parents consider themselves rebels as well, so “how do you rebel against parents who regard themselves as rebels? How do you reject them when they accept your rejection, understand it, sympathize with it, join it?”
|From Ideas Have Consequences (1948) by Richard Weaver: “In our listening, voluntary or not, we are made to grow accustomed to the weirdest juxtapositions: the serious and the trivial, the comic and the tragic, follow one another in mechanical sequence without real transition. During the recent war what person of feeling was not struck by the insanity of hearing advertisements for laxatives between announcements of the destruction of famous cities by aerial bombardment?” For example, how can people take news seriously about the war in Ukraine when it’s positioned next to an article titled “Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman’s Son Connor Cruise Goes Golfing in Rare Photo – See the Pic!”?