The three great dystopian novels of the 20th century all betray their authors’ outlook on life through their outlook on our future. Orwell must have been profoundly pessimistic to set 1984 in the eponymous year, clearly not holding out much hope for our ability to resist the slide to dictatorship. Bradbury might have been slightly more positive to have set Fahrenheit 451 in 2053, hundred and one years after he wrote it. Adolphus Huxley’s A Brave New World, set in 2540, five hundred and eight years after he wrote it, would tempt us to conclude that he was more optimistic than the others. But, alas, as with the others, his world was baptised in nuclear fire before it reached the drug-induced “paradise” that we read about. Whilst we’ve surpassed their most depressed of outlooks, both long-term trends and recent events conspire to draw us ever closer their grim futures. How far have we come to one of these authors’, Huxley’s, imaginings?
One of the most intriguing parts of a Brave New World is that it is so strangely enticing. It crosses all readers’ minds at some point that what if the authorities are correct? that a drug-induced tranquility isn’t so bad after all? Taken individually, many aspects of peoples’ lives are far from troubling in the book. Citizens enjoy freedom from disease, from genetic disorders, from pain and suffering. There’s a community, there’s entertainment, and there’s plenty of time to enjoy it. People’s lives, whether the lowest Delta or a high Alpha, are without cares and worries. Unlike the other novels mentioned, Brave New World is not so clear cut a dystopia. Only once the reader becomes aware of the shallow and stunted extent of their culture, the debauched retardation of foetuses, and the ambitionless leadership – once the society is seen as a whole – do its faults become clearer. Yet this ambiguity begs the question. How far do we have yet to go towards Huxley’s fantasy before it becomes, as far as a fictional book can, reality?
We’ve come no closer than in Huxley’s day to the totalitarian authority that rules the globe. No political consolidation, hinted at by all of the authors mentioned initially, has come about in any part of the globe. It took a world war, a devastatingly terrible war that ravaged the globe and all in it, to convince the world leaders to unite to prohibit such a war’s reoccurrence in Brave New World. Agglomeration of states, which seemed under wartime pressures so obviously near, in utopian dreams so rational, and in dystopian imaginings so worrying, now cannot seem a more distant a reality. The EU barely struggles onwards towards its goals of “ever greater union”. The UK has voted to leave, and though this may take years, there seems little reason why it shan’t go ahead. Indeed, it has inspired, and is inspired by, the many other nationalistic parties that abound on the continent, that seek to escape from the EU. Financial worries in Greece, Spain, and Italy threaten even those states that remain on that path with economic collapse. Security concerns abound on what the EU’s reaction to any Russian aggression to the Baltic States or Finland should entail. Clearly then, the organisation that has come closest could hardly be farther from its ultimate purpose. Further expansion of the EU is more unlikely than ever, not just because of how unpalatable it is to EU voters, yet also because of the illiberal turns of the EU’s surrounding states. Further afield, it’s needless to say no other countries are progressing towards as close a union.
Scientific advances abound that echo with both the most desirous and troubling elements of the birthing process of Brave New World. The CRISPR technique, developed at MIT and Harvard, allows for efficient, cheap, and accurate genome editing. The potentials for this technology are enormous – effectively the ability to cure all hereditary diseases, and even, if allowed under ethical guidelines, to change human DNA in other cases. Dangers are inherent in it, and what will be the most pressing ethical question of the next two generations concerns it -how far should we be able to “improve” a baby, not only to cure disease, but to alleviate it of certain undesirous attributes – perhaps make the potential human taller, more intelligent, more athletic. I am in little doubt that without substantive preliminary legislation internationally such incremental “improvements” shall become widespread amongst those that can afford it – and as past international agreements show, that is an exceeding rare scenario. From here it’s but a small step to start to make and fulfill quotas – through market forces, international disparities, or national oversight – that would usher us into a Brave New World.
The breakdown in the family has certainly come closer than during Huxley’s day. Divorce rates are higher, and more children are born out of wedlock. But these things are a consequence of the greater freedoms that women have been able to achieve. Therefore, the rates before this third Feminist wave must be considered artificially raised, and their decline from the 1930s not all that disturbing. It’s no good to be stuck in a loveless relationship for decades, unable to escape. In fact, in recent times divorce rates have fallen. In Britain, they have since 2003. Does this herald a slow normalisation of marriage rates following a sharp initial drop? The positives that comes from living in a functioning family are enormous, that would be lost by a Brave New World. But there is little to fear in all likelihood. For anyone to give up their child to the state, to be so almost brainwashed, is unthinkable for us.
Yet the most pertinent aspect of Huxley’s writings concerns culture, and how culture defines the civilisation of Brave New World. Culture in that society is not so much picked up from the environment – from years of play, conversation, and immersion – as spoon-fed at night via the sci-fi method of “hypnopaedia”, or sleep-learning. It is a rigid and mono-faceted syllabus, that teaches the same rote phrases and behaviours to every member of a caste. It inculcates as strong a learned reaction as is possible, with reflexive sayings for every possible situation in life. Even the Alphas, the most intelligent of all the castes, are unable to advance past the use of these stock phrases. Phrases range from the innocuous “a doctor a day keeps the jim-jams away” to the far more troubling “…Oh no, I don’t want to play with Delta children. And Epsilons are still worse. They’re too stupid to be able to read or write. Besides, they wear black, which is such a beastly colour. I’m so glad I’m a Beta…”.
Whilst our children’s programmes contain a more wholesome message than this, we as adults most certainly are deceived often by a restatement of facts over and over, even when it is completely contrary to the truth. Whilst not every political mantra is devisive, simplistic, or important to a movement – like Obama’s “Hope” – short, reflexive answers to deep and complex political and social questions are distressingly common. Take, for instance, the “£350million a day to the NHS” claim made by the Leave side of the EU referendum campaign. Despite the statistic being false, the intention being misplaced, and with the benefit of hindsight, never secured, it was widely believed that the NHS would be better off outside the EU. Likewise the Remain’s “scare campaign” that they ran equally relied upon set phrases
In fact, much of popular Euroscepticism is built on a reliance on these set phrases. James O’Brien’s interview with a Leave voter is a classic example of this. Just as Bernard challenges Lenina whilst hovering over the English Channel Brave New World, whose stock phrases are unable to cope with his searching questions, this Leave voter’s deeply held sentiments, held in good faith and good intentions, are revealed as having been inadequate to stand up to penetrating inquiry. Of course, many Leave voters had an able grasp of facts, but there was remarkably little substance to most of those “facts” regarding the EU. Indeed, the European Commission set up a website debunking many of these infamous claims. Our concerns regarding immigration, that our system of welfare might be taken advantage of, have been shown time and again to be false Our fury was whipped up against migrants in the stead of far more complex problems. The”scare campaign” elements of the Remain campaign equally relied upon set phrases; that the present situation is better than the contrary, that the banks and other companies would desert Britain immediately, and that the economy would be thrown into chaos. Most voters, on the Leave side especially, ended up voting according to ingrained mantras – disguised as gut feelings – that had little bearing on the complexities of the debate.
Have we regressed since Huxley’s age? 1932, the year of the book’s publishing was the year before Hitler came to power in Germany. We’ve certainly come little further since that time. Trump’s “Make America Great Again”, and “Build a Wall” have come to encapsulate this phenomenon. The complex issue of immigration reform in America is supposedly settled by stopping new arrivals – via the aforementioned wall – and deporting all 13 million illegal immigrants living in America. The reliance on the 10 second soundbite for the news and our plummeting attention spans would merit a more despondent assessment of our progress since those dark times.
Another key component of Huxley’s world is our desire of simple pleasures. In Brave New World, citizens are offered the simplest route to happiness at all opportunities. Soma, a pleasure-inducing drug, is taken with abandon. People’s free time is packed with inane games and gossip. Whether visits to the 26th century iteration on the cinema or a match of centrifugal bumble-puppy, they can choose from an endless list of equally vapid activities. Their society is geared towards the maximal deliverance of immediate pleasure. In this regard, we have most disturbing progress.
It’s no secret how digital media has transformed how we read, watch, and play. Think back to the last time you finished a book; about a hobby that you’ve practiced for years; about a subject that you immersed yourself in; or finished a project you set yourself. All of these things are increasingly rare. They are also all examples of some of the most satisfying things we can do. We’ve become drawn, not always consciously, instead to our digital selves and our digital lives. Our smartphones have become our leisure hubs, replacing in many cases all the other multitudinous forms of entertainment and fulfillment. News, games, socialising, work, television, sport – all these functionalities, and so many more, are contained in those devices. It is so easy and convenient. To be convenient, to be easy, is certainly no bad thing. Dealing with a physical dictionary, finding an answer to a factual question, or a recipe for some foodstuff all have been immeasurably easier by our digital assistants.
Yet, with Brave New World as the ultimate end, acting as a lighthouse that wards us from the perilous rocks, we sacrifice much to use these. It’s been well-publicised (but with much controversy) that our attention spans have dropped significantly since the digital revolution. Apps are designed to grab our attention, by providing intriguing, funny, or witty notifications. No doubt you have been working, only to be interrupted by a Facebook notification or a Twitter alert that’s diverted your attention by providing immediate gratification. Our brains are being shaped by our browsing habits, to seek the instant gratification that accompanies browsing Reddit, Facebook, or Imgur. Clickbait headlines are another symptom of this. Newspapers rely on sensationalist headlines to grab our attention. Of course, it’s a self-reinforcing relationship between those titles and our falling attention spans. Attempts to limit their use are unsuccessful, as fewer people would read the articles without some inventive line to tantalise us. As I’ve mentioned before, most of us read only the headlines of news items. To convince us to invest the time and effort to read an article online is most easily done by using such a title. These are just a couple of examples that illustrate our larger predicament.
Now, I am no technophobe. This is indeed a blog, written online, being read by you on a screen. But that doesn’t mean that our move to digital platforms is without consequence. Yet precious few of us are aware of the logical conclusion of our infatuation with the cheap thrill and the quick fix. For these activities aren’t satisfying. We ‘achieve’ watching a funny cat video on youtube, scrolling through our Facebook feed studded with funny memes, or tweeting in anger about Trump’s latest outrage. Yet no doubt a couple of minutes, an hour, a day later has this had an emotional impact? Has it enriched our lives in a way that you could tell someone about? Has it ever satisfied someone on par with any of those activities I mentioned before – finishing a book, or a project, practicing a hobby for years, or learning a language? I doubt it has ever come close. This is no idle preoccupation, no inconsequential paeaning for a former lifestyle and age that, not only unattainable in an ever changing world, but that misses out on the vast quality-of-life improvements inherent in the powers of these objects. Our lives are enriched by these momentous achievements and attainments. Our satisfaction, contentment, and happiness is contingent on retaining a modicum of these former virtues. Yet not just personally, but professionally and culturally, our endeavours rely on sustained concentration, vigour, and drive, that finds this present trend to idleness inimical.
But in so many others our technology, society, and culture tempts us to such a New World. Each of us, a member of a huge herd of cattle drive ourselves onwards towards a cliff’s edge. Stampeding, we’re impelled by the need to keep pace with the herd, unwittingly and unceasingly drawing ever closer to Huxley’s unsettling vision. There isn’t a global conspiracy, not even a concerted effort maliciously driving us onwards down this path. The impetus comes from a natural impulse to be at leisure, make our lives easier, seize a quick dopamine hit. But in doing so we risk the perils that are concomitant with it. We chance, and rarely avoid, the pitfalls that await an unsuspecting consumer. We’re threatened by a future that the more prescient have predicted – and with the unfulfilling and vacuous consequences inherent with it.
Just like the deforestation of Easter Island, it shall advance imperceptibly. The one day we will realise we are without the most precious and vital aspects of our lives – we’ll be without the trees for our buildings, our fuel, or our wildlife. Instead, we’ll have spent it on our own Moai heads – the vain, ironic tombstones of our civilisation in a tailspin to inanity. It doesn’t have to be that way. By preserving the habits of the past, limiting our digital exposure, and challenging ourselves once in a while we can do much to ameliorate the worst effects our march to a Brave New World, whilst preserving its best parts. For unlike in Huxley’s vision, limited in technological prowess, in scope, in ambition we inhabit a society that can look forward to, if we endeavour to do so, space flight, quantum computing, and so much more.When we get there, let’s make sure we are ready for it.
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