Dick Meyer is the editorial director of digital media for National Public Radio. He is also the author of Why We Hate Us (Random House, 2008), a book that reminds me why I love Aldous Huxley's Brave New World Revisited, published the same year that Meyer was born in 1958.
When I lived in the Los Angeles area, I used to carry around Huxley's book in my purse as a prophylactic against La-La Land infections of the mind and soul. This is not to say I didn't love living in the land of Hollywood and propaganda central, I just felt the need to keep Aldous close to the vest.
Both Huxley and Meyer are philosophers about our media mind environment. They come across as curmudgeons or misanthropes but really direct their hate to humanity's collective absurdities. Their work is designed to shock us awake into finding our better selves.
One man is long dead. Huxley died on November 22, 1963 at the age of sixty-three. The death of this great 20th Century philosopher was overlooked because America was in a terrible shock with John F. Kennedy's assassination at the age of forty-six.
Huxley published Brave New World in 1932, as well as numerous plays, essay collections, dramas, short story collections, a travel book, and novels, including Eyeless in Gaza. Most of the material for Brave New World Revisited was first published by Newsday as "Tyranny of the Mind." Can you imagine that discussion on CNN's Larry King Live?
Huxley had one good eye left at the time of his death after a lifetime of terrible eye conditions. The back cover picture on my 2000 Harper Perennial edition shows a rather frightening figure staring away from the camera with eye specs that blur out his eyes and cast dark shadows on his cheeks. It is not a typical headshot photo that one would send out to bookers for The View or The Oprah Winfrey Show.
In contrast, Dick Meyer stares directly into the camera on the back inside cover and here at the NPR site: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=93261726.
Just the difference in headshots tells a story about where we are in this media millennium. Meyer is aided by the digital technology that so frustrates him. There is a podcast of an interview with Meyer about his book, and he's aided by media kits and public relations machines that weren't even contemplated in Huxley's day. Further, Meyer is gainfully employed in the digital media industry, though he reveals his ambivalence with that too:
I'm an info piker compared to my colleagues, a rusty Volkswagen Beetle
on the information autobahn. On conference calls, I'm the one who gets teased for
having the slowest cerebral microprocessor, the feeblest multitasking skills, the least
high-tech know-how, and the most antediluvian vocabulary. I don't take in RSS feeds.
I cast no pods. I was the last kid in my class to get a BlackBerry, and my thumbs are all
thumbs. But I soldier on, brain fried and soul soggy.
It's Meyer's last point that links him to Huxley. Both men bemoan our false fronts, our self-importance, our lack of moral compass (any direction or no direction will do now), the trivialization of the most important and making important the most trivial.
Today I went on the Internet and one of the first headlines I saw was a Perez Hilton post based purely on a random rumor that "Shh, Michelle Obama just might be pregnant." This will undoubtedly move up the media food chain like tainted peanut butter. If you hadn't yet heard this, remember, you read it here first!
What I greatly appreciate about Meyer is that he reminds us of what we are losing every day, that is, besides homes and jobs. We are losing our traditions, our ability to cast judgment when things are just wrong and we say nothing out of fear of some two-legged Neanderthal reprisal. He quotes from one of my favorite books of the last decade, Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone, about the decline in social capital in this country:
We spend less time in conversation over meals, we exchange visits less,
we engage less frequently in leisure activities that encourage casual social interaction,
we spend more time watching...and less time doing.
Not everything about our lives can be turned into Capitalism, economic indicators, GNP, or Gross Domestic Product. People are not products. We get angry, but often at the wrong things. This book is a compass and a mirror into our social culture, that culture that gets mistaken for the dominant but false consumer and entertainment culture that frustrates more than it satisfies.
If you read Dick Meyer's Why We Hate Us, go to your local library and check out Aldous Huxley's Brave New World Revisited. When you sit down to read with your favorite coffee and in my case, with the snow falling outside--which it will do tomorrow and the day after in Central New York--you will be engaging in an act of civic disobedience by today's standards. According to Meyer, the "average American spends three minutes a day reading a book." Holy Newberry Medal!
Editor's note: This post has been updated to correct minor typographical errors. The literary prize is the Newberry Medal, not the Newberry Award.