The 2011 Version Of Harrison Bergeron Mental Handicaps: Social Networking


If you’ve never read Kurt Vonnegut’s extraordinary short story Harrison Bergeron, then you should. It’s short, extremely well written, and it’s a poignant commentary on the Left’s never-ending efforts to pull down society’s most successful people instead of helping to build up everyone else.

In the story, everyone is given handicaps to make them “equal.” Here’s the beginning of the story.

THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

Some things about living still weren’t quite right, though. April for instance, still drove people crazy by not being springtime. And it was in that clammy month that the H-G men took George and Hazel Bergeron’s fourteen-year-old son, Harrison, away.

It was tragic, all right, but George and Hazel couldn’t think about it very hard. Hazel had a perfectly average intelligence, which meant she couldn’t think about anything except in short bursts. And George, while his intelligence was way above normal, had a little mental handicap radio in his ear. He was required by law to wear it at all times. It was tuned to a government transmitter. Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.

George and Hazel were watching television. There were tears on Hazel’s cheeks, but she’d forgotten for the moment what they were about.

On the television screen were ballerinas.

A buzzer sounded in George’s head. His thoughts fled in panic, like bandits from a burglar alarm.

“That was a real pretty dance, that dance they just did,” said Hazel.

“Huh” said George.

“That dance-it was nice,” said Hazel.

“Yup,” said George. He tried to think a little about the ballerinas. They weren’t really very good-no better than anybody else would have been, anyway. They were burdened with sashweights and bags of birdshot, and their faces were masked, so that no one, seeing a free and graceful gesture or a pretty face, would feel like something the cat drug in. George was toying with the vague notion that maybe dancers shouldn’t be handicapped. But he didn’t get very far with it before another noise in his ear radio scattered his thoughts.

George winced. So did two out of the eight ballerinas.

Hazel saw him wince. Having no mental handicap herself, she had to ask George what the latest sound had been.

“Sounded like somebody hitting a milk bottle with a ball peen hammer,” said George.

“I’d think it would be real interesting, hearing all the different sounds,” said Hazel a little envious. “All the things they think up.”

Again, I’d highly recommend that you read the story. This is relevant, because it occurred to me today, as I read my friend Rachel Marsden’s screed against social networking. Even though I’m on Twitter (here and here), Facebook, and G+ — and am doing pretty well with all of those accounts — I don’t have as positive a view of social media as most people. I don’t think that’s because I’m overly negative about social media — I see the same positives other people do. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been on the net for so long, worked for an ISP wholesaler, and made a living blogging, that I’ve been unlucky enough to be exposed to more of the negatives of social media up close and personal than most people have.

One of those often unremarked upon negatives is the way that social media constantly breaks people’s concentration. I’ve experienced this in my own life. I can be writing an article, then I take a quick break to log into Twitter, Facebook, G+ — toss up a quick quip at each, and next thing you know, after sending a few responses here and talking to someone on instant messenger, I look at the clock and I realize I’ve spent 30 minutes on social media trivialities — and I really can’t even be fairly called a heavy user. I do 10 tweets a day from my personal account (according to this site), Facebook auto-posts my tweets, and I put up 2-4 G+ posts a day. There are plenty of people who do as much as I do in a week EVERY DAY. Throw in text and cell phone updates, there are millions of people who spend hours a day, every day, being happily interrupted by social networking.

This is why it reminds me of Harrison Bergeron. Instead of a “buzzer” sounding in your ear, a message comes to you from someone commenting on something you said about Jersey Shore. You respond back. Four more people chime in. You JUST HAVE TO toss in a witty one liner about Paris Hilton. You get retweeted. You check it out. Etc., etc., etc., etc. for hours a day — and it’s not just the time — it’s the interruptions. Sitting down and concentrating on one task for hours at a stretch is a thing of the past for a lot of people because of social networking.

Does that mean it’s a waste of time? No. There are a lot of pluses to it. If there weren’t, I certainly wouldn’t have any accounts. But, it’s worth noting those drawbacks, too. Would Einstein have ever come up with the Theory of Relativity if Twitter existed in his day? Would Al Gore have had time to make up a story about taking the initiative to create the Internet if he were actually on the Internet, updating his Facebook page? Will someone who could have cured cancer end up spending that time on G+ instead. Ehr…maybe. It’s something we should take into account when we think about social networking.

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