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.
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.
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 F.D.A. 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.
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.
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.
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?
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 country’s dominant medium, in audience 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 U.S. 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: Let’s say he hasn’t carefully considered the things he’s saying. He’s basically just blurting things out. And even with the megaphone, he has to shout a little to be heard, which limits the complexity of what he can say. Because he feels he has to be entertaining, he jumps from topic to topic, favoring the conceptual-general (“We’re eating more cheese cubes—and loving it!”), the anxiety- or controversy-provoking (“Wine running out due to shadowy conspiracy?”), the gossipy (“Quickie rumored in south bathroom!”), and the trivial (“Which quadrant of the party room do YOU prefer?”).
Yes, he wrote that in 2007, and yes, the degree to which it anticipates the brain-goring 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.