The fennec fox is the smallest fox on earth and cute as a button. He has playful black eyes, a small black nose, and playful six-inch ears, each several times the size of his head. The fennec is native to the Sahara, where its comically oversized ear cups play two key roles: they keep the fox cool under the scorching sun (blood flows into the ears, releases heat and recirculates through the now cooler body), and they give the fox incredibly good hearing, allowing it to pick up the comings and goings of the insects and reptiles it hunts for food.
The Bronx Zoo’s kids section features a pair of human-sized fennec-fox ears that approximate the fox’s hearing. Generations of New Yorkers have photos of themselves with their chin resting on a bar between the two huge sculptural ears, picking up the sounds around them. I first encountered the ears when I was a child, in the eighties. In my memory, inhabiting the hearing of the fox is disturbing. The exhibit is not in the middle of the Sahara on a full moon night. The soundscape is not deadly silent, sprinkled with the echoes of a lizard hissing in the sand. The effect is instant sensory overload. You suddenly hear snatches of conversation, cries, footsteps, all too loud and too loud.
Imagine for a moment finding yourself equipped with fennec-renard-level hearing at a business meeting or cocktail party. It’s hard to focus in the midst of the cacophony, but with a little effort you can listen to every conversation. At first you are thrilled because it is exciting to peer into another person’s private world. Anyone who has ever glanced in a newspaper or spent a day in the archives rummaging through personal papers knows this. As a rule, humans are thirsty to go into people’s business.
But something is starting to happen. First you hear something slightly titillating, a bit of gossip that you didn’t know. A couple has separated, someone says. “They kept it a secret. But now Angie is dating Charles’ ex! Then you hear something very wrong. “The FDA hasn’t approved it, but there’s a whole problem with fertility as well. I read the story of a woman who miscarried the day after the shooting. And then something offensive, and you feel the urge to speak up and offer a correction or an objection before you remind yourself that they have no idea that you are 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 the staff meeting, or wondering if you’re working on that new project Brian started doing next door, or what’s wrong with this place about the size of half a dollar of gray hair on the back of the head. Injury? Some kind of condition?
Suddenly – and I’m talking about some type of experience on this, so stay with me – the chill quivers. If you hear something nice about yourself, you feel a brief warm glow, but everything else will tie you in knots. Knowledge is taboo; the power to hear, definitely cursed.
It would be better at this point to get rid of the fennec ears. Normal human socialization is impossible with them. But even if you leave the room, you cannot hear what you heard.
This is what the Internet has become.
It seems a long way off now, but once upon a time the internet was going to save us from the threat of television. Since the late 1950s, television has played a special role, both as the dominant media in the country, in terms of audience and influence, and as a pet peeve for a certain strain of American intellectuals, who regard it as the root of all evil. In 1985’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman argues that during its first 150 years the United States was a culture of readers and writers, and that the print media – in the form of brochures, newspapers large format, newspapers, and written speeches and sermons — structuring not only public discourse but also the ways of thinking and the institutions of democracy itself. According to Postman, television destroyed all of this, replacing our written culture with a culture of the image that was, in the very literal sense, meaningless. “Americans don’t talk to each other anymore, they have fun,” he wrote. “They don’t exchange ideas; they exchange pictures. They don’t argue with proposals; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials.
This revulsion against the tyranny of television seemed particularly acute in the early years of George W. Bush’s administration. In 2007, George Saunders wrote an essay on the bleating idiocy of the American mass media in the days of 9/11 and preparations for the war in Iraq. He offers a thought experiment that marked me. Imagine, he says, being at a party, with the normal conversation between generally friendly and knowledgeable people. And then “a guy comes in with a megaphone. He’s not the smartest person at the party, nor the most experienced, nor the most articulate. But he has this megaphone.
The man begins to offer his opinions and soon creates his own conversational gravity: everyone reacts to what he says. This, Saunders argues, quickly ruins the party. And if you have a particularly mindless Megaphone Guy, you get a speech that is not only silly, but also makes everyone in the room dumber:
Yes, he wrote this in 2007, and yes, the degree to which he anticipates the mind-blowing stupidity of Donald Trump’s statements is strange. Trump is the brain-dead megaphone turned real: the dumbest, most obnoxious guy in the room given the biggest rig. And our national experiment of putting a D-level wired information expert in charge of the nuclear arsenal turned out as horribly as Saunders could have predicted.
But Saunders’ criticism goes beyond the insidious triviality and loudness of major news broadcasts, both before and after 9/11. He argues that the forms of discourse actually shape our conceptual architecture, that the sophistication of our thinking is determined to a large extent by the sophistication of the language we intend to use to describe our world.
This is of course not a new claim: the idea that the stupid media makes us all stupid echoes the very first reviews of newspapers, pamphlets and tabloid press in America, in the late 18th century, until to the then 1961 speech. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newt Minow in which he told the National Broadcasters of America that their product basically sucks and that television is “a vast wasteland.”
I thought, and many of us thought, that the Internet was going to solve this problem. The rise of liberal blogging, in the run-up to Barack Obama’s election, brought us the most heady days of Internet speech triumph. We were going to remake the world through radically democratized global conversations.
This is not what happened. To put it simply, here’s where we got to. The internet has really brought new voices into a national discourse that, for too long, had been controlled by a far too narrow group. But it did not bring our democratic culture and our ways of thinking back to the logocentrism of before television. The brief renaissance of long blogging arguments was short-lived (and, honestly, it was a little overwhelming while it was happening). Writing became shorter and images and videos more plentiful until the Internet gave birth to a new form of speech that was a combination of words and images: meme culture. A meme can be clever, even revealing, but it’s not a speech the way Postman pined for.
As for the guy with the megaphone chatting over the cheese cubes? Well, rather than taking the megaphone off that silly guy, we added a bunch of megaphones to the party. And guess what: it didn’t make things much better! Everyone had to shout to be heard, and the conversation turned into a phone game, with everyone shouting variations of the same snippets of language, phrases, slogans – a hall of endless sound mirrors. The effect is so disorienting that after a long period of social media browsing, you will likely experience a deep sense of dizziness.
Not only that: the people who scream the loudest always receive the most attention, in part because they stand out from the background of a pendulous wall of sound that is now the ambient tone of our collective mental lives. Suffice it to say: the end result wasn’t exactly a better party, nor the conversation of equals that many of us had hoped for.
Which I think brings us back to fox ears.
The most radical change in our shared social lives is not who is speaking, it is what we can hear. Granted, everyone has access to their own little megaphone, and there’s endless debate as to whether it’s good or bad, but the vast majority of people don’t reach a large audience. And yet, at any time, just about anyone with a smartphone has the ability to monitor millions of people across the world.
The ability to monitor was, for years, almost exclusively the responsibility of governments. In the legal tradition of the United States, it was considered an awesome power, subject to constraints, such as warrants and due process (although these constraints are often more respected during the violation). And not only that, the absence of pervasive surveillance, we have been taught in the West, was a defining characteristic of free society. In totalitarian states, someone or something was always listening, and the weight of that weighed on every moment of life, choking the soul.
Well guess what? We have now all obtained a power once reserved for totalitarian governments. A not particularly industrious fourteen-year-old can learn more about a person in less time than a team of KGB agents could have learned sixty years ago. The teenager might see who you know, where you have been, what TV shows you like and don’t like; the gossip you spread and your political opinions and your bad jokes and bickering; the names of your pets, the faces of your cousins and your favorites and their favorite places. With a little more work, this teenager could get your home address and your current employer. But it’s the ability to access the texture of everyday life that makes this power so awesome. It is possible to get into the head of just about anyone who has a social web presence, as there is a good chance that they are broadcasting their emotional states in real time to the whole world.