The little fox is the smallest fox on earth and cute as a button. It has mischievous dark eyes, a small black nose, and six inch long prickly ears – each one several times larger than its head. The fennec has its origins in the desert, where its comically huge ears play two main roles: they keep the fox cool under the scorching sun (blood runs through the ears, releases heat, and circulates back through the body, which is now cooler), and they hear the fox surprisingly well. , allowing it to catch the comings and goings of insects and reptiles that it hunts for food.
The children’s section of the Bronx Zoo features a pair of human-sized fox ears that give almost the ear of a fox. Generations of New Yorkers have had pictures of themselves with their chins resting on a bar between enormous, sculptural ears, absorbing the sounds around them. I first encountered ears when I was a kid in the ’80s. In my memory, the settlement of fox hearing is troubling. The fair is not in the middle of the desert on a moonlit night. The soundscape is not deathly quiet, dusted with the echoes of a lizard scurrying across the sand. The effect is immediate sensory overload. Suddenly you hear everything at once – snippets of conversation, screams, footsteps – all very often and very loudly.
Imagine, for a moment, that you find yourself equipped with a fox-art-level hearing aid at a work function or a cocktail party. It’s hard to focus amid dissonance, but with some effort you can eavesdrop on every conversation. At first you are overjoyed, because it is so exciting to look at someone else’s private world. Anyone who’s ever peeked into a diary or spent a day in the archives looking through personal papers knows this. Humans, as a rule, yearn for advancement in people’s business.
But something is starting to happen. First, you hear something a little cocky, a little chatter you didn’t know you were. Someone says that a couple broke up. “They’ve been keeping it a secret. But now Angie’s dating Charles’ ex-girlfriend Angie!” Then she hears something seriously wrong. “The FDA has not approved this, but there is also a whole thing about fertility. I read about a woman who had a miscarriage the day after the episode.” Then something offensive, and you feel like speaking up and making a correction or objection before you remember that they had no idea you were listening. They don’t talk to you.
Then, inevitably, you hear someone say something about you. Someone thinks it’s weird that you’re always five minutes late for a staff meeting, or wonders if you’re working on that new project Brian has started, or what the deal is with that half-dollar spot of gray hair on the back of your head. infection? kind of condition?
Suddenly–and I’m speaking from a certain kind of experience on this matter, so stay with me–the excitement curdled. If I hear something nice about you, you’ll feel a short warm glow, but anything else will turn your stomach into knots. Knowledge is taboo. The ability to hear, permanently cursed.
It would be best at this point to get rid of the ears of the fennec. Normal human socialization is impossible with them. But even if you leave the room, you can’t hear what I heard.
This is what the Internet has become.
It seems far away now, but once upon a time the internet would have saved us from the peril of television. Since the late 1950s, television has had a special role, as the country’s dominant medium, in audience and influence, and as a noir ploy to a particular breed of American intellectuals, who see it as the root of all evil. In Amusing Ourselves to Death, published in 1985, Neil Postman says that the United States, during its first 150 years, was the culture of readers and writers, and that the medium of print—in the form of pamphlets, newspapers, newspapers, sermons and written sermons— which are regulated not only into public discourse but also the modes of thought and institutions of democracy itself. According to Postman, television destroyed all of that, replacing our written culture with a culture of images that were, very literally, meaningless. He writes: “Americans are no longer talking to each other, they are enjoying each other.” “They don’t exchange ideas. They exchange pictures. They don’t argue with proposals. They argue with good looks, celebrities, and commercials.”
This disgust with the tyranny of television seemed particularly acute in the early years of the George W. Bush administration. In 2007, George Saunders wrote an essay on the rebellious idiocy of the American media in the post-9/11 era and the run-up to the Iraq War. In it, he presents a thought experiment that has stuck in my mind. Imagine, he says, that you are at a party, the normal give and take of conversation among generally nice, knowledgeable people. Then “a guy came in with megaphone. He’s not the smartest guy at the party, or the most experienced, or the most obvious. But he’s got that megaphone.”
The guy begins to offer his opinions and soon creates his own attraction in the conversation: everyone reacts to what he says. This, Saunders asserts, quickly spoils the party. And if you have a particularly empty-minded Megaphone Guy, you get a letter that is not only stupid, but also makes everyone in the room dumber:
Yes, he wrote that in 2007, and yes, the degree to which you would expect the brain teasing stupidity of Donald Trump’s statements is strange. Trump is the brain-dead megaphone that has come true: the dumbest and most obnoxious guy in the entire room given the biggest podium. And our national experience with the appointment of a D-level news analyst in charge of the nuclear arsenal has gone horribly wrong, as Saunders predicted.
But Saunders’ critique runs deeper than the malicious platitudes and hustle of major TV news, before and after 9/11. It shows that discourse forms in fact constitute our conceptual structure, and that the complexity of our thinking is largely determined by the evolution of the language we hear used to describe our world.
This is of course not a new controversy: the idea that dumb media makes dumb echoes of us all from the first critiques of tabloids, pamphlets, and the popular press in America, in the late eighteenth century, to the rhetoric of 1961 by then. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newt Mino told US national broadcasters that their product had basically sucked and television had reached a “wide wasteland.”
I thought, and many of us thought, that the Internet would solve this problem. The rise of liberal blogosphere, during the run-up to Barack Obama’s election, led to the wildest days of the discourse’s triumph on the Internet. We were reshaping the world through radical democratic global conversations.
This is not what happened. To oversimplify, here we end up. The Internet has already brought new voices into a national discourse that has, for far too long, been under the control of a very narrow group. But it did not return our democratic culture and modes of thought to the pre-television logos centrality. The brief renaissance of long arguments on blogging was short-lived (and frankly, it was a little unbearable while it was happening). Writing became shorter and images and video more abundant until the Internet gave birth to a new form of discourse that was a mixture of word and image: meme culture. The meme can be clever, even grotesque, but it’s not rhetoric in the situation Postman longed for.
The guy with the megaphone babbles about cheese cubes? Well, instead of taking that dumb guy’s loudspeaker away, we’ve added a set of loudspeakers to the party. And guess what: this didn’t improve things much! Everyone had to shout to be heard, and the conversation turned into a phone game, from everyone shouting in different variations of the same language excerpts, phrases and slogans – an endless auditorium of mirrors. The effect is so confusing that after a long period of scrolling through social media, you will likely feel a deep sense of dizziness.
And not only that: The people who scream the loudest still get the most attention, in part because they’re standing against a backdrop of an acoustic wall hanging that is now the room tone of our collective mental life. Suffice it to say: The end result wasn’t really a better party, nor a conversation between equals as many of us had hoped.
Which I think brings us back to fox ears.
The most radical change in our common social life is not who speaks, it is what we can hear. It’s true that everyone has access to their own little amplifier, and there’s endless debate about whether that’s good or bad, but the vast majority of people don’t reach a large audience. However, at any given moment, anyone with a smartphone has the ability to monitor millions of people around the world.
The ability to monitor was, for years, almost exclusively the prerogative of governments. In the legal tradition of the United States, it was seen as a remarkable power, a power subject to limitations, such as orders and legal procedures (although these limitations were often respected when violated). And not only that, freedom from censorship everywhere, as we learned in the West, was a hallmark of a free society. In totalitarian states, someone or something was always listening, and the weight of that weighed on every moment of one’s life, stifling the soul.
Well guess what? We are all now given power formerly reserved for totalitarian governments. An industrious fourteen year old can learn more about a person in a shorter period of time than the KGB team of agents could have done sixty years ago. Your teen can see who you know, where you’ve been, which TV shows you like and don’t like; The gossip you convey, your political opinions, bad jokes and disagreements; The names of your pets, the faces of your cousins, the people you adore and their favorite haunts. With more work, this teen can get your home address and current employer. But it’s the ability to get into the fabric of everyday life that makes this power so amazing. It is possible to get into the head of anyone with a presence on the social web, because there is a possibility that he is broadcasting his emotional states in real time to the whole world.