We begin with a visit to Huxley’s Brave New World, where one of the world controllers, Mustapha Mond, is having a conversation with John The Savage and his two companions Bernard Marx and Helmholtz Watson.
Brave New World: The Controller and The Savage
“But why is it prohibited?” asked the Savage. In the excitement of meeting a man who had read Shakespeare he had momentarily forgotten everything else.
The Controller shrugged his shoulders. “Because it’s old; that’s the chief reason. We haven’t any use for old things here.”
“Even when they’re beautiful?”
“Particularly when they’re beautiful. Beauty’s attractive, and we don’t want people to be attracted by old things. We want them to like the new ones.”
“But the new ones are so stupid and horrible. Those plays where there’s nothing but helicopters flying about and you feel the people kissing.” He made a grimace. “Goat and monkeys!” Only in Othello’s words could he find an adequate vehicle for his contempt and hatred.
“Nice tame animals, anyhow,” the Controller murmured parenthetically.
“Why don’t you let them see Othello instead?”
“I’ve told you; it’s old. Besides, they couldn’t understand it.”
Yes, that was true. He remembered how Helmholtz had laughed at Romeo and Juliet. “Well then,” he said, after a pause, “something new that’s like Othello, and that they could understand.”
“That’s what we’ve all been wanting to write,” said Helmholtz, breaking a long silence.
“And it’s what you never will write,” said the Controller. “Because, if it were really like Othello nobody could understand it, however new it might be. And if it were new, it couldn’t possibly be like Othello.”
“Yes, why not?” Helmholtz repeated. He too was forgetting the unpleasant realities of the situation. Green with anxiety and apprehension, only Bernard remembered them; the others ignored him. “Why not?”
“Because our world is not the same as Othello’s world. You can’t make flivvers without steel-and you can’t make tragedies without social instability. The world’s stable now. People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can’t get. They’re well off; they’re safe; they’re never ill; they’re not afraid of death; they’re blissfully ignorant of passion and old age; they’re plagued with no mothers or fathers; they’ve got no wives, or children, or lovers to feel strongly about; they’re so conditioned that they practically can’t help behaving as they ought to behave. And if anything should go wrong, there’s soma. Which you go and chuck out the window in the name of liberty, Mr. Savage. Liberty!” He laughed. “Expecting Deltas to know what liberty is! And now expecting them to understand Othello! My good boy!”
The Savage was silent for a little. “All the same,” he insisted obstinately, “Othello’s good, Othello’s better than those feelies.”
“Of course it is,” the Controller agreed. “But that’s the price we have to pay for stability. You’ve got to choose between happiness and what people used to call high art. We’ve sacrificed the high art. We have the feelies and the scent organ instead.”
“But they don’t mean anything.”
“They mean themselves; they mean a lot of agreeable sensations to the audience.”
“But they’re… they’re told by an idiot.”
The Controller laughed. “You’re not being very polite to your friend, Mr. Watson. One of our most distinguished Emotional Engineers…”
“But he’s right,” said Helmholtz gloomily. “Because it is idiotic. Writing when there’s nothing to say…”
“Precisely. But that require the most enormous ingenuity. You’re making flivvers out of the absolute minimum of steelworks of art out of practically nothing but pure sensation.”
The Savage shook his head. “It all seems to me quite horrible.”
“Of course it does. Actual happiness always looks pretty squalid in comparison with the over-compensation for misery. And, of course, stability isn’t nearly so spectacular as instability. And being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune, none of the picturesqueness of a struggle with temptation, or a fatal over throw by passion or doubt. Happiness is never grand.”
The Dystopias of George Orwell & Aldous Huxley
Aldous Huxley and George Orwell‘s dystopias are spectacularly laid out for us in 20th Century literature. Their visions are often painted as competing, but it is Orwell who is often cited during our times as the prophet of his times. In particular, Orwell’s 1984, published in 1949, and Animal Farm, published in 1945, remain ensconced in the western mind. And with good reason. George Pack, in an 2019 Atlantic article “Doublethink Is Stronger Than Orwell Imagined,” Begins his review of The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984 with the following paragraph:
“No novel of the past century has had more influence than George Orwell’s 1984. The title, the adjectival form of the author’s last name, the vocabulary of the all-powerful Party that rules the superstate Oceania with the ideology of Ingsoc—doublethink, memory hole, unperson, thoughtcrime, Newspeak, Thought Police, Room 101, Big Brother—they’ve all entered the English language as instantly recognizable signs of a nightmare future. It’s almost impossible to talk about propaganda, surveillance, authoritarian politics, or perversions of truth without dropping a reference to 1984. Throughout the Cold War, the novel found avid underground readers behind the Iron Curtain who wondered, How did he know?“
Packer in the same article, also highlights the way in which Orwell and Huxley are often paired in the American school curriculum. Packer goes on to say:
“It (1984) was also assigned reading for several generations of American high-school students. I first encountered 1984 in 10th-grade English class. Orwell’s novel was paired with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, whose hedonistic and pharmaceutical dystopia seemed more relevant to a California teenager in the 1970s than did the bleak sadism of Oceania.”
Packer, however, also sees the ways in which our own times are a nefarious blend of both Orwell and Huxley’s dystopians. Towards the end of the article Packer proclaims:
“We are living with a new kind of regime that didn’t exist in Orwell’s time. It combines hard nationalism—the diversion of frustration and cynicism into xenophobia and hatred—with soft distraction and confusion: a blend of Orwell and Huxley, cruelty and entertainment. The state of mind that the Party enforces through terror in 1984, where truth becomes so unstable that it ceases to exist, we now induce in ourselves. Totalitarian propaganda unifies control over all information, until reality is what the Party says it is—the goal of Newspeak is to impoverish language so that politically incorrect thoughts are no longer possible. Today the problem is too much information from too many sources, with a resulting plague of fragmentation and division—not excessive authority but its disappearance, which leaves ordinary people to work out the facts for themselves, at the mercy of their own prejudices and delusions.”
Huxley, too, back in 1958, described what he saw as the main distinctions between his Brave New World and the world of 1984 as told by Orwell. Huxley makes this description at the beginning of Brave New World Revisited:
“George Orwell’s 1984 was a magnified projection into the future of a present that contained Stalinism and an immediate past that had witnessed the flowering of Nazism. Brave New World was written before the rise of Hitler to supreme power in Germany and when the Russian tyrant had not yet got into his stride. In 1931 systematic terrorism was not the obsessive contemporary fact which it had become in 1948, and the future dictatorship of my imaginary world was a good deal less brutal than the future dictatorship so brilliantly portrayed by Orwell. In the context of 1948, 1984 seemed dreadfully convincing. But tyrants, after all, are mortal and circumstances change. Recent developments in Russia and recent advances in science and technology (emphasis mine) have robbed Orwell’s book of some of its gruesome verisimilitude. A nuclear war will, of course, make nonsense of everybody’s predictions. But, assuming for the moment that the Great Powers can somehow refrain from destroying us, we can say that it now looks as though the odds were more in favor of something like Brave New World than of something like 1984.
In the light of what we have recently learned about animal behavior in general, and human behavior in particular, it has become clear that control through the punishment of undesirable behavior is less effective, in the long run, than control through the reinforcement of desirable behavior by rewards, and that government through terror works on the whole less well than government through the non-violent manipulation of the environment and of the thoughts and feelings of individual men, women and children (emphasis mine). Punishment temporarily puts a stop to undesirable behavior, but does not permanently reduce the victim’s tendency to indulge in it. Moreover, the psycho-physical by-products of punishment may be just as undesirable as the behavior for which an individual has been punished. Psychotherapy is largely concerned with the debilitating or anti-social consequences of past punishments.
The society described in 1984 is a society controlled almost exclusively by punishment and the fear of punishment. In the imaginary world of my own fable punishment is infrequent and generally mild. The nearly perfect control exercised by the government is achieved by systematic reinforcement of desirable behavior, by many kinds of nearly non-violent manipulation, both physical and psychological, and by genetic standardization. Babies in bottles and the centralized control of reproduction are not perhaps impossible; but it is quite clear that for a long time to come we shall remain a viviparous species breeding at random. For practical purposes genetic standardization may be ruled out. Societies will continue to be controlled postnatally—by punishment, as in the past, and to an ever increasing extent by the more effective methods of reward and scientific manipulation.”
It is here that Huxley captured the crux of what separates his and Orwell’s terrifying visions of the future. Orwell was primarily concerned with government control by punishment and the fear of punishment, Huxley, on the other hand is primarily concerned with organizational control through systematic and scientific reinforcement of desirable behaviors. Both visions are of a future where freedom has been squashed by a desire, on the behalf of some large organization, for stability, order, and conformity. Liberty be damned, the human spirit is instead subjugated to the desires, the control, of some organization for its own ends. Ends that are not aligned with the humans that occupy them or the humans that are controlled by them.
It is important to note that indeed some parts of the modern world are controlled by THE PARTY which utilizes terror to subjugate their populations, taking cues from 1984. Clear examples include North Korea and Syria, and to some degree this is true of Russia and China as well. There are, of course, more than hints of this in the Donald Trump-inspired elements of the United States political system as well. This remains a real and terrifying tool of modern authoritarian states.
But, as Huxley argued, systematic control of a population through positive rewards and countless distractions, aptly applies to much of the rich world, and it is an export from these parts of the world throughout the globe. This is a world, also imagined by Olaf Stapledon in The Other Earth. It is a world where individuals no longer pursue liberty and the development of the human spirit but instead pursue comfort, pleasure, entertainment, and social stability. It is a world in many ways less heinous and less forthright in its horror when compared to Orwell’s Oceania of brutality, fear, and untruth, but in other ways no less demeaning and defeating to the human spirit. It is a world where the desire for liberty isn’t crushed by fear, but rather, deserted, unwanted, substituted. A humiliating, rather than crushing, defeat. And, in both cases, it is only by the development of our prized technology and our glorious machines that the human spirit is subjugated, in mass, through terrific means of mass destruction and horrific means of mass manipulation.
Huxley in his introduction to Brave New World Revisited, notes the mechanical and military enemies of freedom, but then moves on from them:
“The subject of freedom and its enemies is enormous, and what I have written is certainly too short to do it full justice; but at least I have touched on many aspects of the problem. Each aspect may have been somewhat oversimplified in the exposition; but these successive over-simplifications add up to a picture that, I hope, gives some hint of the vastness and complexity of the original.
Omitted from the picture (not as being unimportant, but merely for convenience and because I have discussed them on earlier occasions) are the mechanical and military enemies of freedom—the weapons and “hardware” which have so powerfully strengthened the hands of the world’s rulers against their subjects, and the ever more ruinously costly preparations for ever more senseless and suicidal wars.“
Huxley, chooses instead to turn to the issues of over-population and over-organization and described how these trends, along with mass irrational propaganda from Big Government and Big Business, were quickly ushering in his feared Brave New World. Issues which we will visit with in following posts, as these two trends do indeed give us driving forces by which the current world is still reeling.
Something Missing: The Birth and Rise of Modern Computing
With the benefit of history, however, we can see that something important is missing from this picture. Mechanical enemies of freedom of the time were hardware, huge, heavy, destructive hardware. Software, on the other hand, of the modern computing variety had just been born.
In 1936, Alan Turing had laid out the theory for modern computing and the universal Turing machine in On Computable Numbers. And in 1945, working separately and with incredible teams, Turing and John Von Neumann, published specifications for creating such a machine. Shortly after this, two of the earliest electronically programmable computers, the Colossus and the ENIAC were developed. The Colossus was used by the British during WWII to crack the code encrypting German communications. The ENIAC was used by the Americans during WWII to make the calculations for the development of the Hydrogen bomb. Modern computing was thus birthed in the throughs of espionage and catastrophic weaponry.
And in this way, the earliest modern computers, among the first uses of a Turing-complete machine, was to aid in war and the creation of even deadlier hardware.
In 1958, when Brave New World Revisited was published, these were not wide spread machines, and they had yet to enter mainstream society in a meaningful way (other than through their introduction to warfare). It isn’t until the development of the microprocessor and then personal computers during the 1970’s and 1980’s that one could begin to see the impact of a world that was being digitalized, and even these were early signs. This is still before the World Wide Web and smart devices in every hand. But it is these Turing machines that will amplify opportunities for control of the masses through either fear or positive reward, and it is these very devices and their eventual connectedness to each other that enables both.
Turing Machines & Our Brave New World
Again, with the benefit of history, we can see that Turing machines, coming into evolution when they did, have been most effectively deployed as tools of control through methods of irrational propaganda, endless distraction, and tailored content to ones weaknesses. These abilities, of connected Turing machines, have enabled mass, global surveillance and mass, global irrational manipulation of ones thoughts, desires, and behaviors. In this way these machines have amplified the psychological tendencies that Huxley observed about the human condition:
“In the light of what we have recently learned about animal behavior in general, and human behavior in particular, it has become clear that control through the punishment of undesirable behavior is less effective, in the long run, than control through the reinforcement of desirable behavior by rewards, and that government through terror works on the whole less well than government through the non-violent manipulation of the environment and of the thoughts and feelings of individual men, women and children.“
While these modern computers were in their infancy in 1958, their computing capacities have grown exponentially ever since. It is this ever increasing exponential growth in computing and similar growths in memory storage that thrust modern computers onto the world as the driving force that comes along and surpasses in strength the forces of over-population for which growth has slowed, and over-organization for which it is hard to even imagine exponential growth given the state of power of organization and order today. This phenomenon I call over digitalization, and it will be examined in further detail in a later post as well.
This combination of forces has given us our very own Brave New World, our own flavor as the other men on the other earth would have put it, that is illustrated in fact by global mass surveillance and mass irrational propaganda by powerful nation states (China and United States) and by powerful corporations (Meta and Alphabet). Connected Turing-machines, once believed to be purveyors of liberty, now often serve chiefly at the behest of mass manipulators.
The rise of the Turing machine, the World Wide Web, and mass digitalization give the essence of the changes in flavor from Huxley’s time to ours. One where machines, rather than human world controllers like Mustopha Mond of Huxley’s fable, guide and direct us, through constant positive rewards, to abandon the pursuit of liberty and of developing the human spirit.
The Challenge of Biology
Let’s turn, finally, back to Huxley to setup the next post:
“Meanwhile impersonal forces over which we have almost no control seem to be pushing us all in the direction of the Brave New Worldian nightmare; and this impersonal pushing is being consciously accelerated by representatives of commercial and political organizations who have developed a number of new techniques for manipulating, in the interest of some minority, the thoughts and feelings of the masses. The techniques of manipulation will be discussed in later chapters. For the moment let us confine our attention to those impersonal forces which are now making the world so extremely unsafe for democracy, so very inhospitable to individual freedom. What are these forces? And why has the nightmare, which I had projected into the seventh century A.F., made so swift an advance in our direction? The answer to these questions must begin where the life of even the most highly civilized society has its beginnings—on the level of biology.”
— Brave New World Revisited by Aldous Huxley