The fennec fox is the smallest fox on earth and cute as a button. It has mischievous dark eyes, a small black nose, and impish six-inch ears—each several times larger than its head. The fennec is native to the Sahara, where its comically oversized auricles play two key roles: they keep the fox cool in the baking sun (blood runs through the ears, releases heat, and circulates back through the body, now cooler), and they give the fox astoundingly good hearing, allowing it to pick up the comings and goings of the insects and reptiles it hunts for food.
The children’s section of the Bronx Zoo features a human-sized pair of fennec-fox ears that give an approximation of the fox’s hearing. Generations of New Yorkers have pictures of themselves with their chins resting on a bar between the two enormous, sculptural ears, taking in the sounds around them. I first encountered the ears as a kid, in the eighties. In my memory, inhabiting the fox’s hearing is disquieting. The exhibit is not in the middle of the Sahara on a moonlit night. The soundscape is not deathly quiet, dusted by the echoes of a lizard whooshing through the sand. The effect is instant sensory overload. You suddenly hear everything at once—snippets of conversation, shrieks, footsteps—all of it too much and too loud.
Imagine, for a moment, you find yourself equipped with fennec-fox-level hearing at a work function or a cocktail party. It’s hard to focus amid the cacophony, but with some effort you can eavesdrop on each and every conversation. At first you are thrilled, because it is thrilling to peer into the private world of another person. Anyone who has ever snuck a peek at a diary or spent a day in the archives sifting through personal papers knows that. Humans, as a rule, crave getting up in people’s business.
But something starts to happen. First, you hear something slightly titillating, a bit of gossip you didn’t know. A couple has separated, someone says. “They’ve been keeping it secret. But now Angie’s dating Charles’s ex!” Then you hear something wildly wrong. “The FDA hasn’t approved it, but also there’s a whole thing with fertility. I read about a woman who had a miscarriage the day after the shot.” And then something offensive, and you feel a desire to speak up and offer a correction or objection before remembering that they have no idea you’re listening. They’re not talking 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 wonders if you’re working on that new project that Brian started doing on the side, or what the deal is with that half-dollar-sized spot of gray hair on the back of your head. Injury? Some kind of condition?
Suddenly—and I speak from a certain kind of experience on this, so stay with me—the thrill curdles. If you overhear something nice about you, you feel a brief warm glow, but anything else will ball your stomach into knots. The knowledge is taboo; the power to hear, permanently cursed.
It would be better at this point to get rid of the fennec ears. Normal human socializing is impossible with them. But even if you leave the room, you can’t unhear what you’ve heard.
This is what the Internet has become.
It seems distant now, but once upon a time the Internet was going to save us from the menace of TV. Since the late fifties, TV has had a special role, both as the audience’s dominant medium, in and influence, and as a bête noire for a certain strain of American intellectuals, who view it as the root of all evil. In “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” from 1985, Neil Postman argues that, for its first hundred and fifty years, the US was a culture of readers and writers, and that the print medium—in the form of pamphlets, broadsheets, newspapers, and written speeches and sermons—structured not only public discourse but also modes of thought and the institutions of democracy itself. According to Postman, TV destroyed all that, replacing our written culture with a culture of images that was, in a very literal sense, meaningless. “Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other,” he writes. “They do not exchange ideas; they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials.”
This revulsion against the tyranny of TV seemed particularly acute in the early years of the George W. Bush Administration. In 2007, George Saunders wrote an essay about the bleating idiocy of American mass media in the era after 9/11 and the run-up to the Iraq War. In it, he offers a thought experiment that has stuck with me. Imagine, he says, being at a party, with the normal give and take of conversation between generally genial, informed people. And then “a guy walks in with a megaphone. He’s not the smartest person at the party, or the most experienced, or the most articulate. But he’s got that megaphone.”
The man begins to offer his opinions and soon creates his own conversational gravity: everyone is reacting to whatever he’s saying. This, Saunders contends, quickly ruins the party. And if you have a particularly empty-minded Megaphone Guy, you get a discourse that’s not just stupid but that makes everyone in the room stupider as well:
Yes, he wrote that in 2007, and yes, the degree to which it anticipates the brain-going stupidity of Donald Trump’s pronouncements is uncanny. Trump is the brain-dead megaphone made real: the dumbest, most obnoxious guy in the entire room given the biggest platform. And our national experiment with putting a D-level cable-news pundit in charge of the nuclear arsenal went about as horribly as Saunders might have predicted.
But Saunders’s critique runs deeper than the insidious triviality and loudness of major TV news, both before and after 9/11. He’s making the case that forms of discourse actually shape our conceptual architecture, that the sophistication of our thinking is determined to a large degree by the sophistication of the language we hear used to describe our world.
This is, of course, not a new contention: the idea that dumb media make us all dumber echoes from the very first critiques of newspapers, pamphlets, and the tabloid press in America, in the late eighteenth century, to the 1961 speech by then Federal Communications Commission Chair Newt Minow, in which he told the National Broadcasters of America that, basically, their product sucked and that TV amounted to a “vast wasteland.”
I thought, and many of us thought, that the Internet was going to solve this problem. The rise of the liberal blogs, during the run-up to Barack Obama’s election, brought us the headiest days of Internet Discourse Triumphalism. We were going to remake the world through radically democratized global conversations.
That’s not what happened. To oversimplify, here’s where we ended up. The Internet really did bring new voices into a national discourse that, for too long, had been controlled by far too narrow a group. But it did not return our democratic culture and modes of thinking to pre-TV logocentrism. The brief renaissance of long blog arguments was short-lived (and, honestly, it was a bit insufferable while it was happening). The writing got shorter and the images and video more plentiful until the Internet birthed a new form of discourse that was a combination of word and image: meme culture. A meme can be clever, even revelatory, but it is not discourse in the mode that Postman pined for.
As for the guy with the megaphone prattling on about the cheese cubes? Well, rather than take that one dumb guy’s megaphone away, we added a bunch of megaphones to the party. And guess what: that didn’t much improve things! Everyone had to shout to be heard, and the conversation morphed into a game of telephone, of everyone shouting variations of the same snippets of language, phrases, slogans—an endless, aural hall of mirrors. The effect is so disorienting that after a long period of scrolling through social media you’re likely to feel a profound sense of vertigo.
Not only that: the people screaming the loudest still get the most attention, partly because they stand out against the backdrop of a pendulating wall of sound that is now the room tone of our collective mental lives. Suffice it to say: the end result was not really a better party, nor the conversation of equals that many of us had hoped for.
Which, I think, brings us back to the fox ears.
The most radical change to our shared social lives isn’t who gets to speak, it’s what we can hear. True, everyone has access to their own little megaphone, and there is endless debate about whether that’s good or bad, but the vast majority of people aren’t reaching a huge audience. And yet at any single moment just about anyone with a smartphone has the ability to surveil millions of people across the globe.
The ability to surveil was, for years, almost exclusively the provinces of governments. In the legal tradition of the US, it was seen as an awesome power, one that was subject to constraints, such as warrants and due process (though often those constraints were more honored in the breach). And not only that, freedom from ubiquitous surveillance, we were taught in the West, was a defining feature of Free Society. In totalitarian states, someone or something was always listening, and the weight of that bore down on every moment of one’s life, suffocating the soul.
Well, guess what? We have now all been granted a power once reserved for totalitarian governments. A not particularly industrious fourteen-year-old can learn more about a person in a shorter amount of time than a team of KGB agents could have done sixty years ago. The teen could see who you know, where you’ve been, which TV shows you like and don’t like; the gossip that you pass along and your political opinions and bad jokes and feuds; Your pets’ names, your cousins’ faces, and your crushes and their favorite haunts. With a bit more work, that teen 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’s possible to get inside the head of just about anyone who has a presence on the social Web, because chances are they are broadcasting their emotional states in real time to the entire world.