Are we in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World already?
I suppose that many people who watched the TV version of Huxley’s novel (NBC; April 19, 1998) must have asked themselves this question. Huxley visualized a society in which the population–except for the few masters–is kept under control, not by fear of punishment but through the “reinforcement of desirable behavior by rewards” and the “non-violent manipulation of the environment and of the thoughts and feelings of individual men, women and children.” In the novel everyone has free access to an unlimited supply of a drug–soma–that induces a feeling of happiness. People are constantly brainwashed with the thought that they deserve to be happy. Sex is readily available without complications. Babies are produced in vats. There is no love between individuals, no families, no devotion to anyone or anything to compete with devotion to the State.
All this brings up thoughts of Prozac and Viagra, the “sexual revolution,” the constant bombardment of product advertising, and the political imposition of “spin” on every issue. Hence the question “Are we there already?”
When Huxley wrote his book, published in 1932, he placed the Brave New World in the 25th century. But in 1958 he wrote a little book called Brave New World Revisited, in which he expressed the thought that we were getting there much sooner than he had earlier imagined, and that, indeed, we would be far into it by the end of the 20th century. He advised his readers to read that book “against a background of thoughts about the Hungarian uprising [of 1956] and its repression.”
Two forces led Huxley to advance the date at which his society would arrive. They were population and technology. He foresaw that the world’s population would increase enormously by the end of this century. He thought that the great increase in population would cause economic misery around the world, creating the need for a dictatorship to maintain order and control future population growth. Technological change would require the concentration of production in the hands of huge institutions, controlled either by Big Business or by Big Government. Within these institutions, the technology would require workers to perform more and more as robots. But the main contribution of “advancing” technology to Huxley’s world was the facility it provided for manipulating the minds of the population. Television would greatly enhance the ability of the authorities to bring their message constantly into every home. Little newspapers and magazines with dissenting opinions could not survive economically. The population would be constantly immersed in soap operas and sports on television, effectively diverted from any thinking about society. Mind-altering drugs would be increasingly available, cheap, and without dangerous side effects.
In 1958 Huxley saw all this already happening or just around the corner. What he would say today we cannot know. He died in 1963. But it seems to me that the main lesson, or at least one of the main lessons, from Huxley’s 1958 essay is how wrong a brilliant mind can be.
He was right about the growth of population. But that growth did not produce an economic crisis, with incomes declining and government control needed to maintain order. World per capita income is higher than ever and still rising. In what were the two most populous poor countries, China and India, the improvement in the economic conditions of life has been especially noticeable. This improvement of economic conditions was not brought about by an increase of centralized control. Government control of economies is diminishing everywhere. The greatest economic crisis since Huxley wrote occurred in the most controlled state, the Soviet Union, and led to the dismantling of controls.
Moreover, technological change did not lead to a centralization of production in a few giant institutions. The trend has been the reverse. Improved information technology has facilitated the efficient interaction of independent units through the market without central control. And technology has not changed workers into robots. On the contrary, technology has created mechanical robots and calls upon human beings to do what robots cannot do.
The centralized manipulation of human minds through modern media that Huxley predicted and feared is not happening either. He did not foresee cable television, let alone the Internet. People have access to more varied sources of information than ever before. Moreover, television is turning out to be an ineffective medium for influencing human emotions. Huxley describes the rousing effect that Hitler could have on a hundred thousand Germans listening to him in person in moonlight in an amphitheater. If he had delivered the same speeches on television to millions of people sitting at home in groups of two or three–eating popcorn, getting up to go to the bathroom, and channel-surfing with their remote control–the effect would have been very small. Certainly TV exposure of our great authorities has not increased respect for them or our willingness to follow their lead. And the effect of advertising, which concerned Huxley greatly as an instrument that a dictator might use, has turned out to be trivial. We may buy red or black cars rather than green or brown ones because of television, but we don’t buy cars because of television.
T he use of mind-altering drugs has probably increased as Huxley foresaw, although probably not to the extent that he foresaw. He thought that the use of these drugs would make the population indifferent and willing to accept control by political leaders. But first there would have to be seizure of control by some group that was not indifferent. Today, we neither have such a group nor the atmosphere for its emergence. Of course, we do have people who want to be in office, but once in office they don’t want to be in control. Anyway, what causes indifference to politics today is not drugs but politics, which seems less and less relevant to our lives.
There is a trick in Huxley’s argument that makes it difficult to refute. Unlike the people in the Gulag Archipelago, the masses in Huxley’s world do not know they are not free. They have been drugged and brainwashed into thinking that they are doing exactly what they want, not what some dictator wants them to do. So, if we say that we are free, how can we prove that we have not been programmed to say that by a Master who is manipulating us into thinking that? Perhaps he put soma into our drinking water.
There is, however, an answer to that. The masters of the Brave New World would not allow a movie version of Brave New World to be shown on television. The movie reveals what such a society could be like and what a horror it would be. The heroes of the movie are a man and woman who escape the system with their baby and are going to live like a traditional family. As long as Brave New World is shown on television we will know we are not in it.
I describe the Brave New World as a horror, and Huxley thought of it as that also. He was writing a warning, not a prescription. There may be people who do not look upon it as horrible. It is a society in which every want is fulfilled. But, as Professor Frank H. Knight used to say, what people want is not only to have their wants fulfilled but also to have better wants. People in the Brave New World satisfy the wants they have but are prevented from having some good wants, like want for love and family, and deprived of the opportunity to reach for new and better wants.