Digital Amusements and the Emerging Techno-Feudalism

Today, labor and amusement seem to have a symbiotic relationship. Consider the growing population of people who work merely to afford the equipment and accommodation necessary for computer games. And how many of us seek refuge from the exhaustion of work through digital entertainment or distractions of some sort? That much is obvious. But what is less clear is how both the cult of obsessive work and the cult of obsessive amusement function as twin handmaidens of totalitarianism.

Communism, based on the theories of Karl Marx, was the ultimate labor-based totalitarianism. Marx romanticized the work state, which reduced men and women to producers. Yet capitalism also has its versions of the cult of total work, as seen in the individual who has hardly any life outside building his resume, or the corporate executive so focused on quarterly profits that his private life is in shambles. Philosopher Josef Pieper called this the “overvaluing of the sphere of work,” where all of life was subsumed in “the world of ‘total work.’”[1]

George Orwell’s dystopian warnings in books like Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) were inspired by his fear that Communism would spread to the West. But slightly before Orwell’s dystopian warnings about the Communist work state, Aldous Huxley raised concerns that a cult of play might create the conditions whereby totalitarianism would engulf the West. His 1931 dystopian classic, Brave New World, depicts a futuristic society where citizens are lulled into passivity through amusements, including sex. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, sex is a refuge from Big Brother; in Brave New World, it is a tool of the power-hungry state.

Neil Postman famously contrasted Orwell’s and Huxley’s visions in his classic 1985 polemic against the television, Amusing Ourselves to Death:

We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.

But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were 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 who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that 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 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.[2]

Although Postman had no way of knowing it at the time, his polemic against television was written on the eve of inventions with almost infinitely greater power than TV to undo our capacity to think and to reduce us to passivity, egoism, and perpetual immaturity. I refer, of course, to the digital technologies that make possible gaming, binge-watching, doomscrolling, YouTube rabbit-holing, along with emerging technologies like immersive VR experiences, augmented reality storytelling, AI playmates, and virtual pornscapes. Who needs the centrifugal bumblepuppy to lull people into compliance when you have such a plethora of digital devices reducing us to passive users and consumers?

While there is no shortage of cultural critics, psychologists, doctors, and neuroscientists raising alarm about digital devices and their associated addictions, you’ll be hard pressed to find warnings about their relation to totalitarianism. Yet for anyone concerned about preserving our freedom as a society, these highly addictive amusements warrant concern. They are our equivalents to the bread and circuses after Rome took a totalitarian turn, or the drug soma in Brave New World: a happiness-producing opiate that helped people to escape societal unpleasantness around them.

A Totalitarianism of Comfort

A totalitarianism of comfort is not as easy to recognize as a totalitarianism of pain, because it does not fit the standard models Americans have been alert to in the post-Cold War era. Yet even the Communists, who fixated on the cult of work and the threat of pain, understood the political importance of both amusements and activities that create indifference to the outside world.

When KGB defector, Alexandrovich Bezmenov, gave a 1984 interview to G. Edward Griffin, he explained that the main focus of the KGB was not actually direct espionage; rather, they sought ways to reduce populations to passivity. Bezmenov explained that the KGB’s primary interest was to cultivate in Americans a sense of disinterestedness and passivity about the problems in the world. The Communists hoped to bring down the United States by furthering “the fashion not to be involved,” and by encouraging activities that made Americans less “alert to the reality.”[3] (I discuss Bezmenov’s interview in more detail in my Salvo article, “KGB Defector’s Warning to America: Ideological Subversion” Can Destroy America from Within.“)

Of course, the Soviets did not succeed. This was partly because the Marxist work-state could only have emerged out of the factories of the late 19th and early 20th century (more about that shortly). By the end of the 20th century the factory experience had increasingly become an anachronism. While Communism still lingers in five nations today and continues in successor ideologies like cultural Marxism and socialist economics, classic Communism is a relic of the past. Today’s totalitarians have a new playbook to draw from, and it is literally a playbook, for it looks more like Huxley’s dystopia than Orwell’s. As Postman put it, “no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history” when they “adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”[4]

This isn’t to say that we have escaped the specter of an Orwellian surveillance state. On the contrary. As Rod Dreher noted in Live Not By Lies, we are increasingly enslaved and monitored by the woke-industrial complex, and we willingly participate in our own enslavement through our love of consumer capitalism. It is not secret police and gulags we need worry about, but Big Data working in tandem with woke capitalism and the media to marginalize Christians and destroy the middle class.[5] This is harder to recognize, because the companies that most threaten our freedom are the same ones that keep us amused by providing PlayStations, Oculus headsets, Apple Vision Pro devices, endless streaming services, and more. The entertainment these services and equipment provide do not feel like an attenuation of freedom since they allow us to simulate activities that, in real life, would be the epitome of freedom, from the thrill of the hunt to the exploration of untamed territory. In first-person shooters, an individual can experience the dopamine rush of battlefield conquest without battlefield struggles (e.g. getting dirty, hungry, scared). He can experience the excitement of fighting without ever having to cultivate the warrior virtues (e.g., patience, quiet, self-control, courage, endurance, long attention span, accountability, and submission to authority). A man who spends years in digital environments provided by PUBG, Fortnite, or Call of Duty, can gradually emasculate himself while feeling like he’s engaged in manly heroics.

How Gaming Terminals Are the New Factories

Soviet Communism was the culmination of a trend that started in the industrial revolution when the locus of work shifted from the village and community and home, to the factory. These “dark Satanic Mills,” as Blake called them, undermined community-based structures that had previously acted as a buffer against power-hungry leaders. The idea of the “job” detached from village, home, and family contributed to the politics of modern individualism, where each of us stand in an unmediated relationship of dependence to the state. Soviet Communism, while presenting itself as a communitarian alternative to the individualism of the West, could never have arisen had the home, family, and village remained the center of civic life. Consider how during the Russian Revolution, it was the cities and not the countryside that furnished fighters for the Soviet cause, the factory workers more than the agricultural laborers.

While the factory experience is now an anachronism for most citizens living in First World countries, history is repeating itself via the industrialization of play. At one time, leisure occurred in the village, community, and home. Whether through the village festival, a church picnic, or a family enjoying a board game or book together, leisure has traditionally been a source of community cohesion. As such, leisure strengthens the mediating institutions and works as a hedge against tyrants who would herd us as atomized individuals into an unmediated relationship to the state.[6]

“Terror can rule absolutely only over men who are isolated against each other,” noted Hannah Arendt in Origins of Totalitarianism, adding, “therefore, one of the primary concerns of all tyrannical government is to bring this isolation about.”[7]

And this is exactly why digital amusements are a godsend to would-be tyrants. What the industrial revolution did for work, the digital revolution did for play: through gaming and in-phone entertainment, we are separated from our families and communities, isolated as individual “players” who no longer need our family or community for leisure.

From Disciplinary Regime to Informational Regime

Though Communism has become synonymous with enslavement, it was initially appealing because it seemed to offer freedom. Only as the proletariat exercised conscious control over his environment and social forces, Marx taught, could men and women be truly free. This concept of freedom helped make sense of the suffering felt by factory workers and soldiers in Russia during WWI. The Soviets gave hope that, through the Communist revolution, citizens could experience the good life, live in community, and be part of something bigger than themselves. This sense of community was encapsulated in the slogan “workers of the world unite.”

Thus, even though Communism was a disciplinary regime, it was compelling as a worldview because it combined the practicalities of men and women’s lived experience as factory workers with a particular definition of freedom, a particular prescription for the good life, and a sense of community. Yet the men and women who followed Lenin and Trotsky were duped, and simply exchanged their capitalist overlords for communist ones.

The regime of digital amusements is compelling for similar reasons: it also offers a particular worldview that combines the practicalities of men and women’s lived experience (not as workers, but as gamers and entertainment-seekers) with a particular definition of freedom, a particular prescription for the good life, and a sense of community. Let’s unpack each of these, one at a time.

The sense of community is obvious: through the gaming terminal, users connect with like-minded people from all over the world. Gamers see and interact with each other through features like in-game chat, voice communication, and video streams. In violent games, you die for your friends. These low-cost community-building exercises are attractive, especially for those who may be experiencing social isolation in the outside world. If your preferred type of entertainment is not gaming but following a musician or influencer on YouTube, Instagram, or TikTok, you can experience the type of community that comes from rallying behind a tribal leader. Being a fan of BTS is about more than merely liking the music of this South Korean boy band; it’s about being part of a community of fans, known as their “ARMY,” similar to how followers of the Grateful Dead became part of the community of “deadheads.” Or perhaps you aren’t into music but follow someone like the actor, activist, and twitch streamer Tyler Oakley, whose followers have become a close-knit community of fans known as “Team Internet.” Or perhaps if you are religiously inclined, you may follow a celebrity priest or pastor whose fan base offers a sense of community to many who feel out of place in their home parishes.

Sometimes these communities can be leveraged for political agendas, as when BTS mobilized their fan base for United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund and their associated politics. But even when these communities are not explicitly operationalized for political purposes, digital amusements—whether musical entertainment, image streaming, or gaming—serves the broader neoliberal order insofar as these amusements become the rituals for the Quixotic notion of freedom on which Neoliberalism depends. Unlike disciplinary regimes that suppress individual freedom and autonomy for collectivist solidarity, the regime of digital entertainment—and the broader political and economic order it serves—works via positive incentives. Rather than controlling the body through punishment, isolation, compulsion, and prohibition, it exploits freedom through positive incentives, entertainment, and intermittent rewards.

The regime of amusements also depends on an intellectual underpinning that is just as philosophical as Communism, though it exploits useful idiots who have no time for philosophy and believe they are acting as free agents. Consider that the factory workers that made up the communist revolution were the unwitting heirs of a philosophy of freedom worked out decades earlier by thinkers like Marx and Engels who rejected earlier notions of liberty. Similarly, today’s entertainment junkies are the unwitting heirs of a specific philosophy of freedom that rejects the collectivist ideals of Communism as much as it rejects the ordered liberty of classical Christian philosophy. This is the philosophy of freedom forged in the fires of existentialism, with its nihilistic ethic of self-creation, personal autonomy, and expressive individualism. When this nihilistic doctrine of freedom is mediated to us through the liturgies of our digital amusements, we come to believe we are most free when forging our own way through the jungle of entertainment choices. Yet like the factory workers who flocked behind Lenin, we have also been duped. While it may feel freeing to express our individuality via autonomous choice, the electronic liturgies that form the central rituals of expressive individualism merely catechize us more deeply into the values of the information regime, which use perpetual entertainment as a sedative for achieving demoralization and mass compliance with the regime of Neoliberalism. But what do we mean by Neoliberalism?

From Informational Regime to the Enslavement of Neoliberalism

Byung Chul Han defines Neoliberalism as a “further development—indeed a mutated form—of capitalism” that has “discovered the psyche as a productive force.”[8] As Han sees it, neoliberalism is a system built around the self, where the appearance of freedom and liberation mask the mechanisms of control. He calls this the “psychic turn—that is, the turn to psychopolitics,” where “perpetual self-optimization…amounts to a beautiful but deceptive illusion” that is actually “a highly efficient mode of domination and exploitation.”[9]

In Han’s analysis, freedom as unfettered choice enslaves us to the neoliberal order, though the enslavement is masked as self-actualization. The neoliberal inversion of freedom creates a state of affairs for which both Marxist and Foucauldian analyses of power become too imprecise. In Foucault’s model, modern societies are characterized by disciplinary mechanisms that regulate and control individuals, while technologies serve a central role in individuals becoming agents of their own self-regulation as they seek to conform to societal norms. But Han argues that “Foucault’s analysis of the disciplinary society can no longer explain our present.” He continues,

[Foucault’s] disciplinary regime works with commands and restraints. It is oppressive. It suppresses freedom. The neoliberal regime on the other hand is not oppressive, but seductive and permissive. It exploits freedom instead of suppressing it. We voluntarily and passionately exploit ourselves believing that we fulfil ourselves.”[10]

But while the neoliberal regime exploits freedom (for example, through offering a cornucopia of endless amusements), the result is that we become complicit in our own self-exploitation:

Today, we live in a post-Marxist age. In the neoliberal regime, exploitation no longer takes place as alienation and self-derealization, but as freedom, as self-realization and self-optimization. Here there is no Other as an exploiter, forcing me to work and alienating me from myself; rather, I voluntarily exploit myself in the belief that I am realizing myself. This is the diabolical logic of neoliberalism.[11]

Han builds on this in his 2022 book Infocracy, arguing that in the information regime, “mechanisms of power function not because people are aware of the fact of constant surveillance but because they perceive themselves to be free.” We exploit ourselves willingly and gladly via smartphones and other devices. Everything seems available and consumable, which produces the illusion of liberty. “Under the information regime, being free does not mean being able to act but being able to click, like and post.”[12] This shallow form of faux-freedom radically distorts our understanding of human identity as something to be produced, displayed, and self-constructed. The self becomes another form of capitalistic, consumer production.

In Han’s analysis, the information regime’s “self-exploitation is more efficient than exploitation by others, because it goes hand in hand with a feeling of freedom.” Because this deconstructed notion of freedom exploits our psyche, its deleterious effects are felt in the psyche in ways ostensibly unrelated to the power regime: as depression rather than oppression, as disorientation rather than subjugation, as the need for distraction rather than the threat of coercion. Thus, Han concludes, “it is not oppression but depression that is the pathological sign of our times.”[13] Yet the forces perpetuating and driving the information regime are not obviously depression-inducing since they remain hidden “behind the friendliness of social media, the convenience of search engines, the soothing voices of virtual assistants and the courteous servility of smart apps.”[14]

This culture of convenience reaches its full totalitarian potential in the rituals of gaming, which form the central liturgical acts of our emerging techno-feudalist order. “A form of rule in which human beings did nothing but play,” Han reflects, “would be perfect domination. Juvenal coined the phrase panem et circenses (bread and circuses) to characterize a Roman society in which political action had become impossible. People were sedated with free food and spectacular games. Universal basic income and computer games would be the modern panem et circenses.”[15] Han then goes further, riffing on the Dutch philosopher Johan Huizinga’s concept of homo ludens, man the player: “it is almost as though the human being of the future will be entirely without ‘care’—will only play and enjoy. Is the increasing gamification of the lifeworld, of communication as well as of work, evidence that the age of the human being as player is already upon us?”[16]

Leisure, Liberty, and a Defense of Conversation

How can we preserve our liberty while avoiding either the cult of total work and the cult of total amusement? According to Aristotle, the solution is found in leisure.

Aristotle argued that when our only concern is providing for our animal needs, we function as slaves to whomever will feed us. This is not a recipe for a free people. Yet equally, he warned, when we are addicted to amusements and relaxation, we are also unfree, for amusement and relaxation are not appropriate ends for human life. The solution is true leisure. What this means for Christians was articulated by Josef Pieper (1904-1997) in his classic Leisure: The Basis of Culture. Leisure, Pieper argued, isn’t just the absence of work, nor is it the individualistic pursuit of amusements. Rather, leisure is the presence of something meaningful in itself; namely, activities and practices that further us as human beings and bring us into a deeper experience of the permanent things. Leisure in this sense was not about amusing ourselves but advancing ourselves—in ways that capture the best of the vita activa and the vita contemplativa.

What type of activities might leisure include? We have already mentioned community in-person play. Another would be honest dialogue, including the type of conversation that may only emerge organically out of times of quiet and unhurried (non-agenda-driven) togetherness. “A one-on-one conversation may seem like a minor thing,” writes Stella Morabito in The Weaponization of Loneliness, “but it is actually the strongest means for the incubation and spread of ideas. Compellingly honest words from a trusted friend can affect behavior far more than sophisticated propaganda, as long as you have access to that conversation. The end of private conversation would put an end to personal relationships and to the ability to resist tyranny.”[17]

(This is only one among a range of incredible insights Stella Morabito has in her book, which we have the opportunity to explore further in her book club.)

Digital amusements take us away from these important one-on-one conversations not merely because we no longer have time or patience for slow dialogue, but because communication skills atrophy under the liturgies of digital amusements.

It should come as no surprise to find the companies behind the emerging techno-feudalist order attempting to problematize in-person conversation and presence. This became explicit in 2013 when Facebook (now Meta) released “Facebook Home” – a new interface for Android users. In one of the commercials advertising the feature, they showed an extended family sitting around the dinner table. Whenever Facebook shows a commercial of people doing real-world things, you know there will be a sinister twist, and this commercial was no exception. When an older member of the family launches into a boring story from her day, a younger girl discreetly pulls out her phone under the table. While the older person rattles on, this girl is instantly transported to an idyllic realm of music, dance, and photos. She remains at the family table pretending to be present, but her attention is far away in Facebook land.

This was 2013, long before the company introduced the idea of a parallel realm called the metaverse in which we could live, move, and have our being. Already with the Facebook home screen, the company was problematizing leisure, problematizing embodied relationships, and problematizing in-person conversation. Bored by the family dinner conversation? We have a fix: just whip out your phone and go on Facebook.

Since 2013, Meta has leveraged gaming to supercharge this escapism. But now their dystopian vision involves more than merely escaping from family conversation – it involves escaping from cultural problems that we ought to be thinking about! In a commercial for the Oculus Quest headsets for their Christmas 2021 campaign, the commercial featured two socially isolated men, one white and one black, playing a game using their Oculus Quest headsets. In real life, the men are neighbors who dislike each other; in the simulated world of meta, they are teammates and friends. The dystopian messaging of the commercial might serve as an important warning, but for Meta this is not dystopia but utopia – a world where we can escape from the neighbors we hate, into an online paradise of happiness and harmony.

See Also

And that brings us back to Alexandrovich Bezmenov’s warnings to America. The former spy warned that the KGB’s main concern for Americans was how to foster disinterestedness, passivity, and activities that made Americans less “alert to the reality.” Gaming achieves all this and more. It turns active citizens into passive users. It replaces community leisure with personal fun and thus erodes the private sphere of life. It offers escapism as the solution to the social and political problems besetting our communities. And it distorts the active side of leisure, even as sloth (what the ancients called “acedia”) distorts the quiet side of leisure, thus opening space for totalitarian control.

None of this means you have to react and throw away your computer games or make sudden decisions for children that will provoke rebellion. Sometimes a cold turkey approach is best, but it is also possible to use digital entertainment with responsible boundaries. For now, just remember that your devices “want” to enslave you, and it will take effort to resist that domination.[18]


[1] Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009), 20, 69.

[2] Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, xix–xx.

[3] G. Edward Griffin Interview With Yuri Bezmenov, 1984,

[4] Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, xix.

[5] Rod Dreher, Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents (New York City: Sentinel, 2020).

[6] On the importance of mediating institutions as a buffer against the power of the state, see Stella Morabito, The Weaponization of Loneliness: How Tyrants Stoke Our Fear of Isolation to Silence, Divide, and Conquer (Bombardier Books, 2022), chap. 10.

[7] Hannah Arendt, cited in Morabito, xiii.

[8] Byung-Chul Han, Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power (NY: Verso, 2017), 25.

[9] Han, Psychopolitics, 25, 28.

[10] Byung-Chul Han, cited in Gesine Borcherdt, “Byung-Chul Han: ‘I Practise Philosophy as Art,’” ArtReview, December 2, 2021,

[11] Han, The Expulsion of the Other: Society, Perception and Communication Today (MA: Polity Press, 2018), 38

[12] Han, Infocracy, 8.

[13] “Byung-Chul Han: ‘I Practise Philosophy as Art,’” accessed August 29, 2023,

[14] Han, Infocracy, 6.

[15] Han, Non-Things, 11.

[16] Han, 9–10.

[17] Morabito, The Weaponization of Loneliness, 186.

[18] I use “want” in the more ancient sense as when writers would talk about water “wanting” to run downhill or fire “wanting” to rise upward, and imply no agency or sentience to our machines.

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