Brave New World?

I’ve been re-re-re-reading Brave New World recently.

My thoughts on Huxley’s writing style aside (it’s kinda crappy, but seems almost deliberately so, which is sort of endearing), it’s quite clear why it’s treated as a hallmark. Huxley’s postulations on the future are strange, terrifying, and captivating, making it (for me) an incisive warning on the transformative power of scientific advance, akin to Orwell and politics. And, as you read the rest of this article, it’s vital to remember that Brave New World was published in 1932.

It’s interesting to consider that the way of the world in Huxley’s novel is not necessarily presented as evil. The way the World Controllers took control certainly is, but as for everything else… It’s just that it’s so different – hypnopaedia, ectogenesis, the lack (or sheer horror) of parents – that it seems scary to us. The only exception to that is the prenatally determined, biochemically enforced caste system, which it is very easy to morally object to.
And yet… as Henry Foster argues in the book, the lowest caste, the Epsilons, are nevertheless happy as they can be. They’ve never known any other life, nor do they want to, nor can they even conceive of being an Alpha/Beta/Gamma/Delta – they’ve been taught from birth that they’re glad they’re not of another caste, and happy to be Epsilons. The same is true for every single caste. Still, it would is very easy to argue against the morality of that, as this mentality is just the result of pure propaganda. The key point is that the quality of life is markedly different between the castes: Alphas and Betas enjoy going to the “feelies” and playing obstacle golf, while Gammas and Deltas are specifically taught to hate the wilderness so that they want to spend more time slaving away in factories.
But for the most part, the people in the world, the subjects of the story, are no more good or evil than us. The reason I bring up Foster’s argument is that, in the same way that a Delta would be horrified to live the life of an Alpha, and vice versa, so do we, the readers, feel the same about our counterparts, the subjects of the novel, as they do about us. Our world, to them, is a dystopian past. “Mother” is practically a swearword, and the concept of having time to be alone and think is practically reviled. This raises an interesting point about subjectivity, and cultural hegemony. Just because something “is”, does not mean that is how it “should be” – neither in our current world nor in Huxley’s future.

(That is, with the exception of the caste system, which I absolutely do not endorse.) But the way the caste system is enforced – prenatally, by treating specific embryos differently – is not necessarily evil. It’s not cruel and causes no pain. It just better prepares the humans to survive and live in a system which, arguably, is evil. This, for me, demonstrates the most crucial point about scientific advances – that science, like energy, knowledge, or power, depends entirely on how you use it.

On the subject of scientific advances, there’s one other point that has really stood out to me. In Huxley’s world, thanks to all the genetic tooling around and the drugs and pills the characters take, they “look the same until age sixty”, and simply drop dead soon after. There’s no explanation given; it’s just a thing that seems to happen. Moreover, if left alone too long, or if they stray too far from their easy lifestyle and pleasure-loving activities, the Alphas soon begin to grow inexplicably distressed and need to take a gramme of soma to calm down. All of their activity is designed to keep them away from thinking and contemplating for their whole lives… until they drop dead.
This fight against the ageing process… is it so different from what we’re working towards today? Google is already working on Calico, a project that seeks to “devise interventions that slow aging and counteract age‑related diseases” – that is, to put off death entirely. As for the easy lifestyles – are we not very nearly there? Certainly in the developed world, compared even to fifty years ago. But it’s a well-documented fact that our sedentary lifestyles, a result of ease-of-living and technological advances, are also killing us. Furthermore, there’s an odd correlation between countries with the most advanced infrastructures/lifestyles and disturbing psychological conditions. Japan for me is the stand-out example; a place where you can go into a restaurant, be seated by touchscreen, order by touchscreen and have your food arrive on a little electric train.* Japan’s technological prowess is world-famous, but they also have one of the highest teen suicide rates in the world, and is one of the worst cases of an ageing population (where fertility decreases and life expectancy increases). Germany, probably the most advanced country in Europe, also has the worst case of population ageing, while famously free-and-easy Sweden has one of the highest suicide rates. Population ageing – or at least, the fertility decrease, the more concerning part – is often credited to a lack of interest in sex among the younger generations. This could be due to any number of factors, but the almost perpetual entertainment we now enjoy – be it games, films, or the ease of accessing pornography – absolutely plays a part.
*N.B. not every restaurant, of course

In short, we don’t seem to be all too far from a brave new world already, and some of the negative consequences on society are already evident. Maybe they’re not as Huxley imagined, but they’re there. Moreover, with my generation being one of the first in the ‘Information Age’, we haven’t actually seen the consequences in later life of all this prolonged exposure to the radiation of smartphones and computer screens – not to mention all the chemicals in everything we breathe, eat, or drink  (but I really don’t have time to go into *that* kettle o’ fish). We may be finding ways to prolong our lives beyond anything seen in history, but we seem to be facing some unexpected consequences. And if Calico finds a way to “put off” death indefinitely… we may just start dropping dead anyway, just like the Alphas in Brave New World.

What I’ve written here is probably old news to a lot of you, or things you’ve thought about/discussed before. It’s just amazing to me that it’s all encapsulated in a slightly-pulp book written in 1932.

JH

[some of this post is built on a previous discussion with Kishan Rajdev about our bodies vs. technological advances]

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