The mobile phone possesses traits common to both a good companion and bad addiction: dependable, comforting, responsive, and easily integrated into one’s routine, which makes our attention to it both insistent and habitual. It becomes the first point of contact with much of the world, a means of both private and mass communication, and a medium through which we come to understand people, events, and ideas.
I typically fall into a failed dieter's remorse after any binge on technology: I berate myself and strive to enforce stricter disciplines. This rarely augurs long-term success, but last night my lamentation led to two actions: first, I turned off my phone completely, and second, I began working my way through the stack of papers I had brought with me to Los Angeles—I print everything out because I don't read well on my computer.
I started with David Grann's horrifying and thrilling piece about a prison gang called the Aryan Brotherhood and then continued onto George Saunders’ remarkable essay “The Braindead Megaphone.” Though vastly different in form and content, both are examinations of the baseness and derangement of the human spirit—the former much more obvious, the latter more normalized, subversive, and arguably more pervasive.
“The Braindead Megaphone” (I’m referring to the essay, the first in a book by the same name) is a brilliant piece of writing from a decade ago, but it still applies. It’s a sharp and piercing comment on mass media, whose plethora of messages are fired at us relentlessly through a machine-gun-like contraption, with literally mind-numbing consequences.
Saunders begins with this premise: our mental experience differs from a man living in the year 1200 in “the number and nature of conversations we have with people we’ve never met.” He describes a media landscape that not only fosters but is ruled by “braindead megaphones”—voices whose rhetoric is unavoidable because of their loudness and dominance, not because of their intelligence. We’ve arrived at a point, Saunders argues, where we’re hardly aware of the dumbness and coarseness of the most blaring messages. Even more regrettably, because these megaphones rule our eyes and ears, their messages become our own: “what we hear changes the way we think."
I see the dominance of these messages extending beyond the politicized opinions of traditional news outlets to the cultural and aesthetic ideals of beauty, coolness, and wit propagated through social media—on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, especially—which continue to multiply themselves in a homogeneous fashion, like horny rabbits in captivity. While the development of mass media is not new, Saunders points out that we’re in “an hour of special danger if only because our technology has become so loud, sick, and seductive, its powers of self-critique so insufficient and glacial.” As a result, we’re often unknowingly consuming propaganda—dumbed-down information with an agenda, which in turn shapes and distorts our worldview.
A loud message, Saunders says, doesn’t actually require much intelligence to spread widely (read: Real Housewives of Orange County; also, cat memes). One’s message only has to be viable or watchable, which also often means simple (complexity and nuance don’t lend themselves well to loudness), shocking, entertaining, controversial, and flashy. The methods by which we parse these messages are weak—we're suckers for drama, conflict, and gossip. In fact, we might actually enjoy listening to people go on for 10 hours a day about (in Saunders' words) “a piece of dog crap in a bowl” (think: blue dress controversy).
While we’re caught up in the morbid, scandalous, and sensational details deemed so strangely urgent by the powers that be, we forget to think about things in terms of their morality, intelligence, impact, etc. “Where was our sense of agonized wondering, of real doubt?” asks Saunders. He’s not condemning silliness, only asking that that we recognize silliness for what it is, and that we question whether our idiocy is really worth indulging in all the time.
By no means is Saunders criticizing our intelligence either; rather it’s because he assumes that we are bright and intelligent beings that he sees our increasing tolerance for stupidity as particularly tragic:
“Is human nature such that, under certain conditions, stupidity can come to dominate, infecting the brighter quadrants, dragging every body down with it?”Here’s what Saunders says is a good story:
“The best stories proceed from a mysterious truth-seeking impulse that narrative has when revised extensively; they are complex and baffling and ambiguous; they tend to make us slower to act rather than quicker. They make us more humble, cause us to empathize with people we don’t know, because they help us imagine these people, and when we imagine them—if the storytelling is good enough—we imagine them as being, essentially, like us. If the story is poor, or has an agenda, if it comes out of paucity of imagination or is rushed, we imagine those other people as essentially unlike us: unknowable, inscrutable, inconvertible.”He ends with a simple antidote to the problem of the braindead megaphone, which isn’t to legislate against Stupidity, however tempting (this quote is great: “Can we legislate against Stupidity? I don’t think we’d want to. Freedom means we have to be free to be Stupid, and Banal, and Perverse”), but rather, simply to become aware of “the Megaphonic tendency” and engage in discussion about the same. In action, this translates to:
“Every well thought-out rebuttal to dogma, every scrap of intelligent logic, every absurdist reduction of some bullying stance is the antidote. Every request for the clarification of the vague, every poke at smug banality, every pen stroke in a document under revision is the antidote.”I say, lend a ear to the naysayers, permit disagreement, leave room for the meek and quiet, read longer and more thoughtful articles; read books. Ask many questions, accept ambiguity, recognize complexity, understand that there are rarely catch-all solutions to huge problems; determine what is valuable and worthy, and spend time with those ideas.
And to myself I give this advice: take a break from all the media, from all the noise. Silence the megaphones once in awhile, whenever you can; absent yourself, even if that means letting people down or being unavailable. Shut off your phone completely and disappear, even if that's not the way of the world. It’s okay not to believe what everyone else says.
“We still have the ability to rise up and whip our own ass, so to speak: keep reminding ourselves that representations of the world are never the world itself. Turn that Megaphone down, and insist that what’s said through it be as precise, intelligent, and humane as possible.”
Amen George Saunders, Amen.
(Go read “The Braindead Megaphone” now!)