Orwell vs. Huxley: two dystopian worlds, compared

In 2009 Stuart McMillen, famed Australian comic artist, published a drawn rendition of a short passage from Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves To Death.

The passage compares the radically different worlds depicted by Orwell in his “1984” and by Aldous Huxley in his “Brave New World.” Both novels show an Earth whose inhabitants have been rendered helpless and brainwashed, and are considered the quintessential dystopian novels. The term Big Brother, after all, was coined by Orwell for his novel. Yet they depict a radically different approach to enslave humankind.

I’ll leave you to the word of Postman and to the wonderful, if not a little spine-chilling, imagery of McMillen.

What Orwell feared where those who would ban books.
What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one would want to read one.

Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information.
Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would reduced to passivity and egotism.

Orwell feared the truth would be concealed from us.
Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.

Orwell feared we would become a captive culture.
Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.

As Huxley remarked in “Brave New World Revisited”, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “Failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.”

In “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, people are controlled by inflicting pain.
In “Brave New World”, people are controlled by inflicting pleasure.

In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us.
Huxley feared that that what we love will ruin us.

It is worth noting that Huxley, 26 years after publishing his novel and with World War II having happened in between, wrote an essay entitled “Brave New World Revisited”, in which he analyzes how correct he was in his prior assumptions.

Both novels, and possibly also Huxley’s and Postman’s essays mentioned above, should be — in my humble opinion — read by anybody who has any interest in the future of humanity, even though it might mean having to deal with uncomfortable truths.

Italian luddites: the downfall of a country living in the past

If you were to describe my country, Italy, as a country fearful of change, you wouldn’t be too far off from the truth. If Italians could live under a bubble preventing time from passing, most of them would jump at the opportunity. I have come to the conclusion that most of my fellow countrymen are luddite by nature.

Technology is seen as something to be feared, rather than embraced. Something new comes along, and people of all ages — including part of the youth — will complain that it’s unnecessarily complicated, that things worked just as fine before, and that “back then” nobody was forced to learn anything new. I have wondered why people think this way for a few years now, and I think I’ve come to the conclusion that it has to do with history.

Even today, a hundred and fifty-one years after the unification of the country, most Italians don’t really feel like they are Italian. They are more likely to label themselves as coming from a certain region, city or even neighborhood. The North has been blabbering about independence for decades now, and the South is still stuck in the grip of organized crime, the mafia and its cousins sometimes being more popular and better-considered than the State. Indeed, the roots for such criminal organizations can be traced back to the bandits who fought against the forced “Northernization” of the peninsula — more specifically, the so-called Piemontesizzazione, as the first King of Italy just exported the Piemontese laws to the rest of the newborn country — immediately after the unification.

In a sense, that’s why Italians still today consider the State to be inherently evil and should leave people alone instead of meddling with their lives. You seldom find someone who thinks that she, as a citizen, is herself part of the State. Rather, most people will complain about the State and, why not?, rip it off if possible: after all, from their point of view it’s just reciprocation.

For this reason, each and every change is perceived as preposterous, required by the evil State for the sole reason of complicating the citizens’ life, not unlike the way a big, seemingly almighty cat plays with a tiny mouse solely for its own amusement.

But it’s with technology that Italians show their chronic opposition to change. Most people over 50 have no clue whatsoever about computers. Unless they are introduced to them by some younger member of the family, or through some mandatory course on their workplace, most senior citizens will be completely oblivious to computers. Even among those who do use them, most of them will remain antagonistic to the machine.
Even more worrying is the fact that many young people are virtually as uninterested to computers as such, save for the fields in which they are deemed useful from the ir point of view: illegal file sharing, homework plagiarism, social networking, porn and the like. The interesting thing here is that the same young people spend most of their time with a smartphone in their hands, yet refuse to learn the basics of computing. I personally know an eighteen-year-old woman who claims that she never really learned how to use a computer because she never found a use for them.

Most of my foreign readers are probably shocked at this point, but see, the sad truth is that in Italy the internet is not necessary to carry on with your daily life. Nobody expects you to have an email address, or to submit documents online. I know doctors who proudly take note of their appointments on a dear old paper calendar, rather than using a computer, an iPad, a smartphone or even a measly “data bank” from the 90s. They are completely oblivious to the capabilities that a digital system can provide — such as keeping an easily searchable long-term log of appointments, cross-referencing notes — because they are not familiar with the possibilities, and even if they were, they wouldn’t want to spend some time to learn how to use the system.

In this country, most companies don’t even have a one-page website. Those who do, seldom update it; it quickly turns into a stale flyer, but they don’t care. Who goes to the website, anyway? After all, if a client wants some information she’d better just call: writing to a company’s e-mail address almost invariably results into never receiving a reply, or immediately receiving a notification that the recipient’s mailbox is full, a clear sign that it’s been left unchecked for the longest time.

When it comes to money, Italians and their fear for change goes into overdrive. Given the incredible level of corruption in the country, there have been feeble attempts at reducing the maximum amount that can be paid in cash, forcing any higher-value transaction to be carried out through means that leave a paper trail. Recently, this limit has been lowered to a thousand euros. One would expect that the strongest opposition would come from lobbying entrepreneurs, but no: the ones who complained the most were retired senior citizens. The new limit would prevent those of us who make enough (and the numbers are getting fewer and fewer) from picking up their whole pension in cash in a single visit to the post office. Of course, having it deposited to a checking account would solve the problem immediately, but many people in Italy do not have a checking account altogether, in part due to the fact that they have the highest fees in all of Europe. Indeed, many people only open up one when they are required to, such as when their employers insist that they are paid with a direct deposit, or when they need to purchase a house and need a mortgage.
Credit card usage is also lower than most of Europe, as many people simply don’t trust them (or lack access to them, if they have no checking account). I know people who only use them with ATM to withdraw cash, which — albeit useful in emergencies — is quite a silly thing: why not just use them directly to pay in stores?

When I read that Sweden is starting to consider the wholesale (pun intended) elimination of cash as most Swedes use other means of payments and micropayments, I was stunned. That will never happen here. The people, the commoners if you will, would object too strongly, failing to see that it would actually lead to a greater accountability that would reduce most of the corruption. It would not make it entirely impossible to use money for bribes, of course, but it would require more careful planning than just not releasing an invoice or a giving out a receipt to clients. That alone would be an immense improvement, but then again, it requires a paradigm shift that most people are simply not willing to take out of laziness, rather than out of genuine concerns about privacy and tracking.

About a month ago, my region switched off analog TV transmission, finally entering the all-digital era. This was supposed to happen two years ago, but it kept being postponed over and over, in part due to the political agenda, and in part due to the fear that people would not be able to survive — metaphorically speaking, of course — the switch. It’s not hard: if you have a new TV, you’re already set; if not, you need to get a cheap converter box that you connect between the antenna and the TV. In some cases, as ironically happened to my very own household, you may need to call and pay a technician to replace and/or re-aim your antenna to improve reception. The government, years ago, even started a controversial campaign that allowed people to buy converter boxes at a discount, effectively semi-subsidizing the purchase of these devices. Yet, even today, many people are incredibly confused about the whole matter, and the refrain is always the same: why does my grandma need to learn how to use a converter box with a different remote? why does my grandpa have to spend money to get his antenna replaced? And mind you, these are the same people who complain that there’s nothing on TV. They may have to shell out some cash in some cases (though for most households the expense is simply the cost of the digital receiver, which retails for prices as low as €15), but they would get many more channels to watch for free after that. In most cases, moreover, the switch would be so simple that any nephew or grand-daughter can explain the eldest how to proceed.
The people who complain about how “the government did this to make us spend more money” (without realizing that the money spent, if any, goes to private companies, such as stores and antenna technicians) also fail to realize that the frequencies that get released will be auctioned off for mobile broadband, which will improve the availability of Internet access in areas currently not covered by DSL.

But, then again, who needs the Internet in Italy? The “Internet use in households and by individuals in 2011” report by Eurostat tells a fairly discouraging tale. A note for non-Europeans: “EU27” refers to the whole European Union, which includes 27 Member States (Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, United Kingdom) as opposed to “Eurozone”, which refers to the 17 Member States currently using the Euro as their currency.

Whereas 73% of the households in the EU27 had Internet access in 2011 and broadband availability was at 68%, only 62% of Italian households have Internet access and barely 52% have broadband. This is in stark contrast with other Western European countries such as France (76% and 70%, respectively), Belgium (77% and 74%), Germany (83% and 78%) or the Netherlands (94% and 83%.) What’s most amazing is that Greece jumped from 25% and 7% in 2007 to 50% and 45% in 2011, and Romania jumped from 22% and 8% to 47% and 31% during the same time span. Italy’s increase is still remarkable (43% and 25% to 62% and 52%), but we remain steadily behind the average.

It gets worse when the actual usage of the Internet, rather than its bare availability in households, is taken into account. An average of 71% of EU27 citizens used the Internet within the 3 months before the survey, 73% used the Internet within the 12 months before the survey, and 24% never used the Internet. The report doesn’t state whether this means never used it at all, or never used it within the past 12 months; in any case, this is only marginally relevant for the sake of the analysis.
In Italy, only 54% used the Internet within the last 3 months and 57% within the last 12 months, while 39% never did. Comparatively, in France these values are 78%, 80% and 19% respectively, in Germany they are 81%, 83% and 16%. Scandinavian countries lead the chart, with Sweden chiming in at 93%, 94% and 5%, and Norway at 93%, 94% and 5%. Iceland shows an even higher Internet penetration, but I’m concentrating on mainland Europe here.

The important fact here is the number of people who never used the Internet. Italy’s value is 39%, the highest in Western Europe after Greece (45%) and Portugal (41%), while the EU27 average is 24%. That’s almost half as much.
Moreover, only 51% of Italians access the Internet at least once a week and only 49% do so daily, while in Germany these values are 77% and 63% respectively. Unsurprisingly, 82% of Norwegian users access the Internet daily, and 91% do so weekly.

Italians are also not very keen on purchasing goods or services over the Internet. Compared to an EU27 average of 43% over the past 12 months, only 15% of Italians carried out economic transactions over the web. This is an incredibly lower value compared to France’s 53%, Germany’s 64%, the Netherlands’ 69% and Norway’s 73%.
The report doesn’t tell the reasons for this negative achievement, but I think I can elaborate a little bit on that. As I’ve said in the first part of this article, Italians are somewhat afraid of change and are particularly opposed to payment methods other than cash. However, while you can enter a store and pay with notes and coins, you cannot do so over the Internet unless you choose the cash-on-delivery options, which is normally more expensive. This, together with the ancestral fear of frauds, lack of widespread Internet access — Italy had one of the strictest law on public wi-fi that simply killed the so-called “Internet cafés” —, generalized computer illiteracy, very high shipping costs and incredibly complicated bureaucracy, effectively hinders any possibility of widespread adoption of electronic commerce. This is not to say that e-shops cannot thrive in Italy; many of them do (and I have first-hand experience of this, because in 2008 and 2009 I worked in a small store that also sold its products online), but most of the buyers are usually returning customers. It’s hard to make a company grow in such an environment, and online businesses shut down daily.

All of this unfortunately triggers a chain reaction: since few people use the Internet and therefore few people will buy online, few companies will be eager to make business online (and the few public authorities will invest in letting users deal with them over the web, given the investment required and the current state of the economy.)

In the EU27, 41% of people interacted with public authorities over the Internet in the last 12 months, but only 22% did so in Italy. The pattern repeats again: France chimes in at 57%, the Netherlands at 62% and Norway at 74%.
Italy’s percentage is only about half of the average, and that’s frankly not surprising. Our bureaucracy is so heavy and complex that moving even if new material were handled digitally, old certificates will probably never be transposed to the 21st century.

Again, I can provide first-hand experience: my parents live in Chieti but they married in my mother’s town, Vasto, which is located about 75 kilometers away. They need a marriage certificate, and the only way to have it is to go to the city hall in Vasto and request it there. There is simply no way to request it at the local city hall and have them get it via fax or something like that, let alone obtaining it directly online. Moreover, since it’s a semi-private act, the request cannot be delegated to some relative who lives there, so they have to be there in person. The most ironic part of this is that not only this will take the better part of a day and money to pay for gas and highway tolls, but the certificate itself will not even be free. But, once again, since very few people would request this kind of data online, there is no reason for public authorities to invest into a massive digital upgrade.

This whole chain reaction leads to an unpleasant conclusion: one of the reasons for Italy’s economy downfall is this country’s inability to change and become modern by embracing technology. What’s even sadder is seeing hordes of youths, the same youths who fiddle with their parents-funded smartphones all day long, puzzled in front of a computer screen. How can we expect things to improve if our future doctors, lawyers and entrepreneurs are confused by paragraph styles in word processors?

Amazon Kindle 4 review

Shortly before Christmas, I sold my Cybook Opus – which I loved, if you recall my review – and purchased an Amazon Kindle. I have been enjoying it for the past few days, so here is my review for it, especially with regard to how it compares to the Opus.

If, after reading this post, you decide to purchase a Kindle, please do so using the links at the bottom; that way, you support this blog’s costs and expenses.

I cannot provide side-by-side comparisons because I sold the Opus before receiving the Kindle, but I used it for the last year and a half, so I am very familiar with its merits and its shortcomings.

The first thing I noticed is the screen. In addition to being slightly bigger, six inches versus the Opus’s five, the e-ink technology is – not surprisingly – better. The Kindle supports 16 shades of grey rather than the Opus’s 4, and the background looks brighter and the text darker. It is worth pointing out that while the Kindle’s screen is bigger, it is theoretically less sharp because the resolution is the same (800 x 600 pixels). In practice, however, the Kindle still appears better due to the improved technology, dubbed “e-ink pearl.” Amazon shows it off to great effect by employing detailed (and no doubt optimized) pictures as screensavers when the reader is not in use.

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God is an atheist

God here.

First, I do not exist. The concept of a 13,700,000,000 year old being, capable of creating the entire Universe and its billions of galaxies, monitoring simultaneously the thoughts and actions of the 7 billion human beings on this planet is ludicrous. Grow a brain.

Second, if I did, I would have left you a book a little more consistent, timeless and independently verifiable than the collection of Iron Age Middle Eastern mythology you call the Bible. Hell, I bet you cannot tell me one thing about any of its authors, their credibility or their possible ulterior motives, yet you cite them for the most extraordinary of claims.

Thirdly, when I sent my “son” (whatever that means, given that I am god and do not mate) to Earth, he would have visited the Chinese, Japanese, Europeans, Russians, sub-Saharan Africans, Australian Aboriginals, Mongolians, Polynesians, Micronesians, Indonesians and native Americans, not just a few Jews. He would also have exhibited a knowledge of something outside of the Iron Age Middle East.

Fourthly, I would not spend my time hiding, refusing to give any tangible evidence of my existence, and then punish those who are smart enough to draw the natural conclusion that I do not exist by burning them forever. That would make no sense to me, given that I am the one who withheld evidence of my existence in the first place.

Fifth, I would not care who you do or how you “do it”. I really wouldn’t. This would be of no interest to me, given that I can create Universes. Oh, the egos.

Sixth, I would have smited all evangelicals and fundamentalists long before this. You people drive me nuts. You are so small minded and yet you speak with such false authority. Many of you still believe in the talking snake nonsense from Genesis. I would kill all of you for that alone and burn you for an afternoon (burning forever is way too barbaric for me to even contemplate).

Seventh, the whole idea of members of one species on one planet surviving their own physical deaths to “be with me” is utter, mind-numbing nonsense. Grow up. You will die. Get over it. I did. Hell, at least you had a life. I never even existed in the first place.

Eighth, I do not read your minds, or “hear your prayers” as you euphemistically call it. There are 7 billion of you. Even if only 10% prayed once a day, that is 700,000,000 prayers. This works out at 8,000 prayers a second – every second of every day. Meanwhile I have to process the 100,000 of you who die every day between heaven and hell. Dwell on the sheer absurdity of that for a moment.

Finally, the only reason you even consider believing in me is because of where you were born. Had you been born in India, you would likely believe in the Hindu gods, if born in Tibet, you would be a Buddhist. Every culture that has ever existed has had its own god(s) and they always seem to favor that particular culture, its hopes, dreams and prejudices. What, do you think we all exist? If not, why only yours?

Look, let’s be honest with ourselves. There is no god. Believing in me was fine when you thought the World was young, flat and simple. Now we know how enormous, old and complex the Universe is.

Move on – get over me. I did.

God

(I didn’t write this; I found on the web, but I wholeheartedly agree.)

Languages: life, evolution, death and extinction

To call a language “dead” is often an exaggeration. Languages seldom really die; they evolve, and sometimes they fade out of usage.

Latin, for instance, is usually deemed to be a dead language, but this is not the case. To begin with, Latin is still the official language of the Vatican, and while catholic functions have been in local languages since 1964, papal documents continue to be redacted in Latin to this day. Moreover, while there are no native Latin speakers, there are hundreds of millions of people whose native language is directly derived from Latin: Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French and Romanian; these are usually called “romance” or “neo-latin” languages. The word romance has unfortunately nothing to do with feelings, and is rather a reference to roman. Ancient Romans did, in fact, spread the usage of Latin around the world.

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Language: defining identity

In my previous post about language, I said that the ability to conceive and communicate complex thoughts is what sets humans apart from animals. I want to make it clear that I do not mean in any way that animals are stupid, on the contrary. However, seeing as they rely on instinct much more than we do — partly because we traded off instinct with learning — they are more radical in their behavior than us. Anybody who tried to calm down a scared cat or dog knows exactly what I mean. I hope this settles any doubts that readers might have had about my point of view.

I have already said that language is the foundation of human culture. It is, however, more than that. Language is one of the very few “inner traits” that define the different ethnic groups, that is traits not immediately visually discernible when seeing someone new. Everybody can tell if somebody has a similar ethnic background: Caucasian people look different than African people, or Asian people. Yet, while is it true that a Swedish will probably look different than an Italian, it will be virtually impossible to discern a Spanish and a Portuguese just by looking at them.

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Language: the foundation of culture

Language is the fundamental trait that sets apart homo sapiens from other animals. The physical ability to generate complex sounds has given us the ability to go beyond instinct.

Culture could not exist without language, and not only because we wouldn’t be able to share it with one another. Animals, lacking full languages, are only able to communicate simple pieces of information: there is food over there; a predator is approaching; I am ready to mate. Contrary to popular belief, they do not chit-chat with one another; they are simply relaying basic information. A cat might indicate to one of its kind that it is happy, but will not seek a full conversation with its fellow. They lack the body parts to do so, and are therefore unable to conceive any higher form of communication. This is not unlinke people who are blind from birth: not having ever seen colors, they simply don’t know what color is. It’s an entirely abstract concept to them, much like every human fails to grasp the concept of a fourth dimension. (I strongly recommend reading Edwin A. Abbott’s “Flatland” to get a better idea of the problem.)

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Analysis of a misspelling

Some time ago, Lamebook showed a picture that captured my attention. Here it is:


(Click to enlarge)

It seems to me that the author of the message is not even a native English speaker. The syntax of the phrase is unusual; nobody fluent in the language would say “I do apologise,” unless someone complained about not getting an apology in the first place. Moreover, while “inconvenence,” “mechines” and “workin” might be a direct spelling of the local parlance, there is no way that “apologise” would be written “apploiges.” Misspellings are always homophones or quasi-homophones of the correct attested variants, but “applogies” has an entirely different pronunciation than “apologize.”

What is interesting to note is that the author might however be familiar with the British usage of the ending -ise. The caption of the picture does indeed mention KFC Byker, and Byker is a ward of Newcastle upon Tyne in England. On the other hand, the -s ending in “applogies” might stem from confusion the plural ending; even in that case, though, the unlikely singular “applogy” was pluralized correctly, rather than turning into “applogys.”

Also note that the author has no problems writing shorter words such as “about,” “thank,” “but” and the never-mistreated-enough “are,” which oftentimes magically turns into “our.” It is indeed a fact that shorter words are more easily remembered, at least because they tend to be more common. In any case, I am entirely unable to guess where the author of the sign might be from.

In any case, rather than the misspellings, what I find annoying is the comment of the person who posted (and presumably took) the picture: “The intelligence levels at kfc byker are sooo high! Lmfaooo.” The person who wrote the sign is ignorant, in that he or she doesn’t know English well enough, but talking about lack of intelligence is a bold and inappropriate claim at least. That might make sense (from the point of view of logic) only in case someone keeps making the same spelling mistakes over and over, even after being instructed properly.

The line between completely different concepts should not be crossed. Intelligence and ignorance are not the same. Saying so — or implying so — is not only Orwellian, but also plain wrong. At least the person who misspelled the sign is likely a foreigner and can be excused!

Where do you find e-books?

So you have bought a nice e-ink based e-book reader, and you need to quench your thirst for books. How do you get them? Free e-books are, well, free and without encryption; paid e-books, on the other hand, can be either encrypted or unencrypted.

For the sake of simplicity, I will assume that your reader is able to read ePub and PDF files and supports the Adobe Digital Editions DRM for both formats. Most readers can however be reprogrammed to support Mobi files, however, but I personally suggest to stick with ePub.

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Electronic ink: is it that good?

E-ink is the technology behind e-book readers such as the Opus. Some call it e-paper, but it’s essentially the same thing: a (relatively) revolutionary approach at computer-controlled displays. E-ink screens differ greatly from CRT or LCD screens, in several ways:

  1. They are not backlit, therefore you need ambient light to see what’s on them
  2. They do not require power to keep the image up
  3. Their refresh rate is abysmal
  4. They do not yet come in color, and they’re quite lame at showing gray too

So, you may wonder, why even consider buying something like this? That’s very simple: the things I mentioned above are the points of strength of these devices, not their weaknesses: it’s all about what you use these screens for. I am going to briefly go through those perveiced problems.

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