Beyond Brave New World is a series of articles exploring societal and individual satisfaction in the context of technological progress, with Aldous Huxley’s work as a guide.
If the first half of the twentieth century was the era of the technical engineers, the second half may well be the era of the social engineers — and the twenty-first century I suppose would be the era of World Controllers, the scientific caste system and Brave New World. — Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited (1958).
Is being distracted from your problems worth also being distracted from your goals?
We live in an age with more ways to fulfil our desires than perhaps at any other point in history. And yet an increasing number of people report suffering from lack of purpose and crises of meaning.
Most public debate centres around such crises are occurring and what to do about them. It is clear that something is going wrong, but there is disagreement on exactly what that is. Broadly speaking, there is a lot of confusion and uncertainty about what to do. It is natural for many of us to try to simplify the situation, creating a story where one or other problem is at the root of it all and needs solving first.
In simplifying the world, this problem is, more often than not, identified as a group of people. The greedy elite, the entitled youth, the unscrupulous foreigner, the ignorant bigot, the condescending expert — each of these is the bogeyman of a story in which ridding or reforming this group will pave the way towards a better society. Indeed, those whose answer is 'it's complicated' are deemed to be non-committal bystanders, incompetents who are too spineless to recognise the ‘obvious’ truth of the situation.
And yet, for many of us, it is almost hopelessly complicated — so much so that we just try to ignore it altogether.
In the aftermath of a global recession and a worldwide pandemic in the space of little over a decade, the structures built in the mid-to-late 20th Century appear fragile, outdated and rife for reform. In the 2020s, there is talk of Great Resets and Building Back Better. These phrases generate more anxiety than hope. They are at best empty promises and at worst plans for top-down control and world domination.
There are innumerable numbers that point to the fact that the world has become much better in the last 100 years — mostly relating to poverty, mortality and life expectancy — and there is every reason to celebrate these. The question then becomes: why is there growing dissatisfaction with these healthier, wealthier lives? What is it that we are missing about the human condition?
It is one thing to predict a specific technology, trend or event, whether in fiction or otherwise, but it is quite another to capture an entire techno-cultural atmosphere in the way that Aldous Huxley did in his 1932 classic, Brave New World. While the scientific specifics of his otherwise prescient novel have not really come to pass — except in early-stage forms — his vision eerily captures some of the political, social and even philosophical dimensions of today, dimensions which I will explore throughout this series. As Huxley himself said in the foreword to his novel, ‘[the] theme of Brave New World is not the advancement of science as such; it is the advancement of science as it affects human individuals.’
It is worth bearing in mind that, like all stories about the future, Brave New World was really about the present, as it was then. Huxley's novel came after a decade or so that had witnessed a conflict that consumed a continent, a pandemic that had followed in the immediate aftermath and the largest recession of a generation. By the early 1930s, science — combined with technological advancement and economic output — promised a new age of comfort and leisure. Yet it was also a time when a new kind of authoritarian regime was on the rise around the world, backed by the very same scientific breakthroughs that promised an idealised, utopian future.1
Looking back tells us that many so-called 'modern' trends have been rather a long time in the reckoning. It is said that history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes. There are hues of the 1930s in the 2020s, though of course, coloured by different contexts.
'You can do anything with bayonets except sit on them,' quotes Huxley in a 1958 interview. Authoritarianism won't come from terror, but from compliance. People will love their servitude and those who don't will be made to do so. We have seen the effects of combining scientific knowledge about psychological manipulation and human behaviour with big data and artificial intelligence — that is the foundation of value for Facebook, Google, Amazon, Instagram, Twitter, Netflix, YouTube and, in some form or another, many other Big businesses and, increasingly, Big governments. It is no coincidence that the British government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) relied heavily on behavioural science in their modelling during the recent pandemic.
Are we sleepwalking into an over-organised, distracted and consumptive world, blinded by the hopes of a safe and predictable scientific order or paralysed by the fear of permanent and worsening chaos? And is that really any worse than being Woke or Awake?
There are other ways to make meaning of the world, for individuals and for societies. We understand more and more that satisfaction is to be found in climbing the mountain more so than standing at the summit, as many Olympic athletes discover.
From a neuroscience perspective, pleasure comes in the anticipation, not in the act (boyfriends and husbands please take note). Dopamine does not reward you for taking the action, it motivates you to take it. What we experience afterwards is satisfaction.
Is it better to be enslaved by your own desires than to be free? Perhaps the slave is the person who gets none of what they want or all of what they want.
A more meaningful society will involve understanding our own motivations and letting go of cheap dopamine — letting go of immediate desires to make room for individual autonomy. It will require a reframing of what it means to be a prosperous or abundant society, finding new numbers that relate more directly to our sense of wellbeing, or, God forbid, having no numbers at all.
With Huxley as our companion, let's take the journey from our Brave New World to whatever might come beyond it.
Thanks to Swastika Pandit, Celine Esuruoso, Charles Stevens for feedback on earlier drafts.