Author’s note: While I finalize edits of the next two chapters from The Golem and the Messiah, please let me know what you think of this essay, first published several years ago but still (I think) pretty current…
“There will be, in the next generation or so, a pharmacological method of making people love their servitude, and producing dictatorship without tears, so to speak, producing a kind of painless concentration camp for entire societies, so that people will in fact have their liberties taken away from them, but will rather enjoy it, because they will be distracted from any desire to rebel by propaganda or brainwashing, or brainwashing enhanced by pharmacological methods. And this seems to be the final revolution.” – Aldous Huxley
We are watching Huxley’s dystopian vision of a Brave New World controlled by state-sanctioned addiction unfold right before our eyes. And true to Huxley’s prescience, we rather enjoy it. The only surprise is that the operative pharmacological agents he warned against aren’t delivered in pill or liquid or other physical form, and we don’t call them soma or heroin or crystal meth or crack. They’re delivered in bits and bytes instead, and we call them media. Consider…
The average American household has only 2.75 people, but 3 TVs and 6 Internet devices.
The average American family spends more money each month on media consumption than on groceries or electricity.
The average American consumes 12-15 aggregate hours of digital media per day.
The average American child consumes more than 10 hours of digital media per day.
The average American smartphone is checked every 6-12 waking minutes.
70% of Americans binge view.
The jury is in and the verdict is irrefutable: A pervasive and pernicious meta-addiction to all things media and all things digital has emerged over the past generation as the default condition of American life, the rule rather than the exception. We are born into and live our lives in a completely immersive screen culture whose primary directive is to search for, find and ingest media all day long — virtually every waking minute.
We carry pocket-size TV screens with us everywhere we go, and more screens of various sizes greet us wherever and whenever we pause: at home in our bedrooms, kitchens and living rooms. At work in elevators, reception areas and atop every desk. On the road in gas pumps, airline seats, taxis, airports and train stations. At play in bars and restaurants. In school, in the doctor’s office and just about everywhere else.
Our kids are hooked on media before they enter pre-school. Digital media shape and define our lives at every stage and in every possible way. We are, per media ecologist Neil Postman’s seminal title, Amusing Ourselves to Death, forever swapping electrons in a Brave New Digital World where none of us will soon be able to find or fashion context or meaning for our lives beyond the High-Definition bits and bytes we consume virtually nonstop through all our digital devices.
Our meta-addiction to all things media and all things digital is passionately non-partisan and politically correct to a fault — but also perfectly attuned to protect and promote the interests of the corporate, government and academic power brokers who wield it so effectively. Like all late-stage addictions it moderates and controls almost all of our personal and social debates, and narrates virtually every facet of our lives.
Our meta-addiction to all things media and all things digital extols personal empowerment while it compels us to work twice as hard and twice as long for half as much money. It preaches community values while it sells brute efficiencies of scale, destroys jobs and shifts trillions of dollars from middle-class neighborhoods and retirement accounts to gilded and gated enclaves. It preaches democracy and transparency and digital accountability while it sells power and influence to the highest bidders behind closed doors and buries culpability in the bottomless fine print of online user agreements and privacy statements. It preaches income equality and sharing economies while it converts entire industries into white-collar sweatshops where carefully crafted and legally vetted job descriptions translate into piecework for pennies with no benefits. It preaches retirement planning while it euphemizes blatant ageism and the eradication of job security as worker liberation and workplace flexibility.
Our meta-addiction to all things media and all things digital celebrates, blames and balkanizes everyone — Republicans and Democrats and Independents and males and females and young and old and straight and gay and black and white and every shade in between — but is accountable to no one. It befriends, informs, comforts and amuses us without end while it steals our time and money and freedom — just like any other addiction to any other narcotic.
Meanwhile, thousands of highly educated and well-qualified financial experts tell us how to invest and protect our money. Thousands of highly educated and well-qualified health and nutrition experts tell us how to eat well and stay healthy. Thousands of highly educated and well-qualified lifestyle experts tell us how to manage and empower our lives. All of them tell us to stay tuned for more. Yet barely one generation into the digital era — with functionally limitless access to everything worth knowing about the secrets to financial success, the science of health and nutrition and the keys to personal empowerment — we find ourselves with less money and more debt, fatter and besieged by chronic lifestyle-related disease, time-starved, sleep-deprived and far more anxious and fearful than ever before. What’s wrong with this picture?
The same digital technologies of scale that created millions of jobs and powered the dot com boom of the late 1990s now destroy far more American jobs than they create. The same digital technologies of scale that gave rise to the Wall Street and digital media cultures now all but guarantee periodic financial calamity and the steady erosion of civil liberty. The same digital technologies of scale that promised utter accountability and transparency have turned forensic accounting into a growth industry, and are now common license for corporate, government and academic executives to rob us blind while they barricade themselves behind an opaque veil of impenetrable complexity and bureaucratic inertia.
Pushed to extreme, our digital tools of scale have started to push back and turn against us. Much of the opportunity that once defined the Great American Dream has quietly migrated en masse over the first digital generation to other parts of the world with cheaper labor and fewer regulatory constraints. And as opportunity leaves American shores for other parts of the world, the quality of life for middle-class Americans leaves with it.
Historically, the extreme polarization of wealth and the decline of opportunity are the classic pre-conditions for the ascent of secular Fascism. Such is increasingly the case in America today, just as such was the case in post-WWI Germany and Italy and such was the case also in pre-Communist Russia, China and Cuba.
Like the old Fascism, the new Fascism comes wrapped in the strident language of identity politics and tribalized victimhood. But this ain’t your daddy’s Fascism. The new Fascism is hip, stylish, thoroughly inclusive, immensely entertaining and powered by thousands of server farms and billions of microchips. I call it eFascism, and define it simply as the religion of the state in 21st-century digital America.
One common feature of secular Fascism (capitalist or socialist) is the early and ongoing suppression, marginalization and/or elimination of organized religion. Like its 20th-century analog counterparts, American eFascism doesn’t play well with competing gods, precisely why popular media have vilified and portrayed Western religion as the sworn enemy of all things progressive over the past generation (despite obvious and abundant evidence to the contrary). And precisely why secular Fascists like Hitler and Stalin and Mao and Castro all felt the same acute need to marginalize and eradicate clergy as prelude to their murderous regimes.
Where theocratic Fascism rises by the sword of imposed moral authority, the rise of secular Fascism demands the opposite: a moral vacuum filled by the cults of personality, celebrity, expertise and political correctness. Both forms reflect spiritual disorder and disease, but only secular Fascism promotes itself as our primary co-conspirator: friend not foe, partner not master.
Western religion and American clergy are the canaries in the secular Fascism coal mine of 21st-century America. This time, however, the real threat to organized religion and the quality of life comes not from the iron boot of Orwellian Fascism (at least not yet). It comes not from the things we fear and loathe. Rather, it comes from the Huxleyan things we love and trust and invite into our homes and lives. For most of us Big Brother isn’t some stranger who kicks our doors down and invades our homes under cover of darkness. Far more often we invite him like an honored guest into our living rooms and kitchens and dining rooms and bedrooms.
Turns out that the real threat to the quality of life in 21st-century America comes not from overt deprivation or outright oppression but from our meta-addiction to media-driven excess as de facto mandate on an immense institutional scale. eFascism is what emerges when powerful institutions (private and government alike) collude to wage protracted digital war against moderation — and win.
eFascism embraces and embodies the very essence of addicted excess, an institutionalized orgy-porgy of mass psychosis deliberately manufactured and invoked by the constant and relentless release of media-induced dopamine and endorphins in all of our brains almost all of the time. It’s no mistake that the rise of secular Fascism in the early 20th century coincided with the rise of electronic mass media.
Where democracy was the primary political bias of print media, fascism is the primary political bias of electronic media.
Fade out, fade in: A century after the rise of secular Fascism we think it’s normal to consume electronic media almost every waking minute of every day because we’ve been told for decade after decade to stay tuned and because everyone around us now behaves the same way. We think it’s normal, but it’s the kind of normality that ensues only when the inmates — the biggest addicts — take over the asylum.
“Democracy and freedom will be the theme of every broadcast and editorial. Meanwhile, the ruling oligarchy and its highly trained elite of soldiers, policemen, and mind-manipulators will quietly run the show as they see fit.” — Aldous Huxley.
Those who would Occupy Wall Street or stage tea parties need look no further than their own smartphones and the cash reserves of Apple and Samsung and Google and Yahoo and Facebook and Twitter and Microsoft and Disney and Discovery and Comcast and Time Warner and Viacom and FOX and Verizon and AT&T and DISH and DirectTV and SiriusXM and Nintendo and Electronic Arts and Sony and Amazon and Netflix and Omnicom and WPP and Publicis and Interpublic and Dentsu to explain the accelerated polarization of wealth and the concomitant destruction of the middle class in 21st-century America. True, the big banks are happily and eagerly complicit, but the populist war against Wall Street — however justified — is a mere smoke screen for the real power brokers. Follow the money these days and it will lead you directly from your own smartphone, tablet, laptop and HDTV to the balance sheets of the biggest digital and media dealers and their obscenely compensated proxies in entertainment, academia and all levels of government.
Meanwhile our addiction tells us in no uncertain terms that the answers to all our problems can only be found in the consumption of still more media and still more digital devices. It wraps itself in the institutionalized sales language and imagery of personal empowerment, freedom and democracy. But personal empowerment and the digital democratization of media are the mythic golems of global media franchises, advertisers and professional spinmeisters with billion-dollar budgets — the glittering distractions of a default addiction narrative writ large and hidden in plain sight behind the soothing façade of a Potemkin global village fashioned on a Hollywood soundstage. The same digital and social media tools that we love to describe as liberating forces were manufactured by immense global corporations with big budgets and little tolerance (beyond that expressed in their own advertising, marketing and PR) for the feel-good platitudes and slogans of media-driven and induced pop culture. “Pay no attention,” they tell us, “to the man behind the curtain.”
The true bias of digital technology is neither personal empowerment nor freedom. The true bias of digital technology and eFascism is the efficient and accelerated consolidation of institutional power and wealth among those institutions — corporations and government agencies alike — already far too powerful and far too wealthy. The real bias of digital technology benefits most those massive corporations and government agencies that singly and together already manage and manipulate terabytes of data each and every day.
The result is more conspiracy by fiat than design these days as top government regulatory, industry lobby and university administration jobs are increasingly interchangeable and incestuous components of single ambitious careers. Big government agencies, their big corporate counterparts and major academic research institutions all emerge bigger, wealthier and more powerful as the primary bias of digital technology to consolidate additional power and wealth among those already too powerful and too wealthy asserts itself each and every time they sit down to negotiate with each other. Conspiracy by design is simply no longer necessary when conspiracy by fiat satisfies the same ends and — conveniently — offers plausible deniability to everyone and accountability to no one.
“Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power.”
— Benito Mussolini
What we call government regulation these days is in fact corporatism at work, little more than a tool-driven marriage of convenience among incestuous alumni of the same Ivy League MBA programs. Witness the fact that the financial institutions deemed too big to fail back in 2008 are — for the most part — twice the size and only half as accountable today, not in spite but precisely because of government regulation. Contrary to what the ruling elite of the Brave New Digital World tell us time and again, too big to fail isn’t just another unintended consequence of a bad plan. Too big to fail is the plan.
“Sometimes we forget that the Age of Reason ended more than two centuries ago.” — Jeff Einstein
In the Carrollian world of default addiction to all things media and all things digital (where up is down and down is up), career politicians and corporate power brokers conspire by fiat with academic henchmen behind closed doors to manufacture periodic financial calamity, only to emerge at the 11th hour of each crisis to announce the latest rescue plan to save the economy and prevent the next manufactured calamity. The cast of characters and the industries they represent may change from crisis to crisis, but the rescue plan remains pretty much the same with each refrain: another obscene payday for those most responsible (and least accountable). Each manufactured calamity adds another three zeros to the national dialogue and debt (we can only hope that no one knows what to call a thousand trillions). And each manufactured calamity further indentures us as late-stage addicts to the service and whims of an insatiable oligarchy: an AllenCo cast of 21st-century robber barons fronted by an endless media-induced frenzy of dazzling digerati and glamorous glitterati.
In the Carrollian world of default addiction to all things media and all things digital (where down is up and up is down), big government is championed as the antidote to big business when in fact big government and big business are merely flip sides of the same corporatist coin — precisely why campaign finance reform remains forever fixed on where the money may or may not come from instead of where it always seems to wind up: in the very deep pockets of global media interests.
In the Carrollian world of default addiction to all things media and all things digital (where a cigar is never just a cigar), we hail Google and Apple — the world’s wealthiest corporations — as counter-culture icons and turn the War Against Drugs over to the media, the biggest dealers on the block.
Thus no surprise that the typical image of addiction-driven eFascism manifests not in a pair of iron boots but in a perfectly white smile and a paralyzing torrent of fatherly advice. It preaches freedom of choice but — like every other addiction to every other narcotic — obliterates the only real freedom: the freedom not to participate, the freedom to simply walk away.
The same eFascism is the driving meme of every grade level in just about every school and is baked into just about every job description. It comes from everywhere at once all of the time without respite, and it marginalizes or destroys anything else — like common sense, freedom, democracy and religion — that preaches moderation and restraint (the true enemies of both addiction and eFascism) as critical and indispensable components to the quality of life.
Meanwhile, our corporatist masters and oligarchs have quietly and efficiently amassed the world’s largest prison population, militarized our urban police and all but obliterated personal privacy in order to satisfy the insatiable appetites of Homeland Security and the digital media industry for more and more personal data. A perfect recipe for the rise and enforcement of a Fascist state via a perfect delivery system: a state-sanctioned meta-addiction to all things media and all things digital.
The battle cry for eFascism is the commercial entreaty to eat all we want. But the more we eat, the poorer, fatter, sicker, more fearful, more envious and more dependent we become. The more we eat, the more we enrich and empower our corporate, government and academic masters. The more we eat, the more time, money and freedom we surrender to them. The more we eat, the quicker we starve to death on an impoverished diet of spiritually empty calories. Soon enough, democracy — like everything else for sale on commercial TV — becomes just another perennial product category, like fast food and antacids. Still, the relentless electronic entreaty continues ever-amplified and unabated: “Eat all you want,” they tell us. “We’ll make more.”
Under eFascism, the self-serving scoundrels in corporate board rooms, the self-serving scoundrels in government and the self-serving scoundrels in academia are all the same self-serving scoundrels at different stages of their careers. They blame their own fiscal mismanagement on the unrestrained rise of entitlement programs like Food Stamps and Medicaid and Medicare and Social Security. But their definition of entitlement is shamefully transparent, because what the high priests and drug lords of the Brave New Digital World call entitlement programs are in fact nothing more than the table scraps left over from their own bottomless and rapacious gluttony.
Under eFascism, true and enduring entitlement begins and ends not with Food Stamps, but at the top in the hallowed halls of Congress, state legislatures and city councils, where Republicans and Democrats with 85-90% incumbency rates exempt themselves from the laws they pass for the rest of us, and stop selling influence as career politicians only to start buying it as highly paid lobbyists.
Under eFascism, true and enduring entitlement begins and ends not with Social Security, but at the top in the ivory towers of academia, where shameless administrators sit atop billion-dollar endowments and sports programs, and engorge themselves at the expense of middle-class parents whose children emerge with a lifetime of debt and few career prospects. All while students and tenured faculty champion diversity of everything except thought, and attack freedom of speech in tribal defense of some presumed and privileged right not to suffer the ignominious insult (real or perceived) of systemic micro-aggression and cultural appropriation.
Under eFascism, true and enduring entitlement begins and ends not with Medicare, but at the top in the opulent cabins of private jets and convoys of armored Cadillac Escalades en route to global warming conferences.
Under eFascism, true and enduring entitlement begins not with Medicaid, but at the top where the cult of celebrity deigns to inveigh against social injustice and income inequality while walking the red carpets of televised award ceremonies too numerous to count.
Under eFascism, Oscar Wilde’s definition of the cynic as the man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing will soon define us all.
The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil. – Hanna Arendt
Fifty years after Hanna Arendt published her seminal work, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, we find the banality of evil invoked once again in the deliberate obliteration of critical thought on a massive institutional level. It hovers over us in the Brave New Digital World like a dark cloud of drones.
Indeed, our meta-addiction to all things media and all things digital is the polar opposite of critical thought. Perhaps the revolution referenced by Aldous Huxley in the opening quote to this piece speaks less to the inevitable consolidation and victory of corporatist power over individual will and liberty and more to the fulfillment of our chemical destiny as a species wired to pursue pleasure and avoid pain at a time in our technological evolution when the supply of affordable narcotics is suddenly universal and utterly relentless. Maybe addiction and eFascism are simple chemical destiny, what remains after the wholesale replacement of the meaningful rituals in our lives with digital convenience, entertainment and trivia.
Nothing is profane when everything is already rendered profane. Just as freedom is first and foremost a spiritual yearning, addiction and Fascism are first and foremost crises of spirit. Ironically, western religions are — for better or worse — the only remaining institutional voices of restraint and reflection in a nation driven mad by what many recovering addicts describe as self-will run riot.
The high priests and drug lords of the Brave New Digital World criticize and ridicule the great world religions as sheer superstition and wholesale surrender to irrational and misplaced faith. They caution us time and again not to invest our faith in things we cannot see or measure. Rather than the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen, our faith has been reduced to something crass and commercial, something we can only buy instead. So we worship for hours and hours and hours each and every day at the high-tech temples of Apple and Google and Facebook and Amazon.com.
Yet there’s a reason why freedom of religion and freedom of speech are guaranteed in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: it’s because one cannot exist in practice without the ethical and moral authority of the Other, and because everything else follows. Also because the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were written in the Age of Reason, at the apogee of critical thought: a deliberate and rational process that always begins with a skeptical mind and an ethical question.
Accordingly, it’s time to step back and declare once again the sacred in our lives, right here and right now, before freedom of religion and freedom of speech are euphemized to death in the scintillating and politically correct juggernaut of the Brave New Digital World.
In the Brave New Digital World, we can no longer afford to begin each new endeavor with the practical question, “Can I?” Rather, we need to begin each new endeavor with the ethical question, “Should I?”
In conclusion I offer an excerpt from T.S. Eliot’s Choruses From the Rock…
The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Brings us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.