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.
Seeing the Sickness
How have individuals been affected by the technological advances of recent years? Here is the answer to this question given by a philosopher-psychiatrist, Dr Erich Fromm: 'Our contemporary Western society, in spite of its material, intellectual and political progress, is increasingly less conducive to mental health, and tends to undermine the inner security, happiness, reason and the capacity for love in the individual; it tends to turn him into an automaton who pays for his human failure with increasing mental sickness, and with despair hidden under a frantic drive for work and so-called pleasure.' — Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited (1958).
What do the words 'mental health' bring to mind? More than likely, what you imagine is actually mental illness — stress, despair, depression and anxiety as opposed to say, peace of mind and wellbeing.
Since Freud (and perhaps before), the entire Western idea of mental health and psychology has been about sickness. It’s as if there is a natural, healthy balanced state and that those who deviate from it must be broken and need fixing.
Health is considered to be the absence of symptoms. But as Huxley and Fromm point out, this definition is flawed.
Symptoms of a Healthy Mind
Our 'increasing mental sickness' may find expression in neurotic symptoms. These symptoms are conspicuous and extremely distressing. But 'let us beware', says Dr Fromm, 'of defining mental hygiene as the prevention of symptoms. Symptoms as such are not our enemy, but our friend; where there are symptoms there is conflict, and conflict always indicates the forces of life which strive for integration and happiness are still fighting.' The really hopeless victims of mental illness are to found among those who appear to be most normal. 'Many of them are normal because they are so well adjusted to our mode of existence, because their human voice has been silenced so early in their lives, that they do not even struggle or suffer or develop symptoms as the neurotic does.' They are normal not in what may be called the absolute sense of the word; they are normal only in relation to a profoundly abnormal society. Their perfect adjustment to that abnormal society is a measure of mental sickness. These millions of abnormally normal people, living without fuss in a society to which, if they were fully human beings, they ought not to be adjusted, still cherish the 'illusion of individuality', but in fact they have been to a great extent de-individualized. Their conformity is developing into something like uniformity. But 'uniformity and freedom are incompatible. Uniformity and mental health are incompatible too... Man is not made to be an automaton, and if he becomes one, the basis for mental health is destroyed.' — Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited (1958).
Of course, the past was not without its stresses and sicknesses, but if society was becoming more sick, then each generation would be more adapted to it than the last. When you read what was written by the people who watched these societal changes happening over time, you get a clearer picture. And these witnesses consistently claim that even as technology advanced, psychological wellbeing diminished.
The arguments given to justify focus on technology has been prosperity. In the last century at least, prosperity has been the single most dominant metric by which individual and societal success has been judged. The general assumption is that increasing prosperity is the same as reducing poverty, which, let’s say, is only true to some extent.
Relief from poverty improves psychological wellbeing enormously — and to that extent, technology itself is not ‘the problem’ — but past a certain point (a different point for every individual) more wealth alone stops bringing more satisfaction. Even as satisfaction stops increasing, psychological pressures continue to mount. There is a school of thought that fetishises these pressures and wears them as a stoic badge of honour. More recently however, attitudes towards wellness have begun to shift.
There appears to be more obsession with wellbeing now than there ever has been. But I would say that this new form of wellbeing is itself largely commoditised. It is something to think about only once you are ‘financially free’, defined by luxury products and activities. The wellbeing of the past seems to have been a different kind. It was built into rituals and traditions, a consequence of daily living, rather an antidote to it.
There is no reason that technology could not be used for a different ultimate purpose. Really, it is a question of values. Notably, the Kingdom of Bhutan decided to prioritise ‘Gross National Happiness’ over ‘Gross Domestic Product’. Their nation is by no means a paradise for all, but the point is that as long as only commonly and clearly talked about goal of a society is the pursuit of material wealth, individual satisfaction must suffer in some way.
Wealth creation is fine. I would say that, generally speaking, it is a good thing. The issue, in my view, is that we recognise that material accumulation is not the sole point of living while having so many of our other needs and values consistently subjugated to it.
When we think of an ambitious person, do we consider someone who is ambitious about the depth of the relationships in their life? It seems invariably that we think of someone who, even if they have some deep-seated passion, is motivated to monetise that passion and to build an empire on its foundation. There is a bias that building and contributing to a strong and safe family and wider community requires less effort or ambition than building a profitable organisation. Both are worthy and necessary enterprises!
The problem is not with what we have gained (a wealthier world) but what we have lost in the process (a sense of deep connection).
Selling Your Self
In the course of evolution nature has gone to endless trouble to see that every individual is unlike every other individual. We reproduce our kind by bringing the father's genes into contact with the mother's. These hereditary factors may be combined in an almost infinite number of ways. Physically and mentally, each one of us is unique. Any culture which, in the interests of efficiency or in the name of some political or religious dogma, seeks to standardize the human individual, commits an outrage against man's biological nature. — Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited (1958).
You might look at certain aspects of the modern economy and see that increasing numbers of people are making a living from their personalities and their individuality. While this affords a certain kind of freedom, it is worth bearing in mind that there are a whole host of mental stresses that come with commoditising yourself for an audience.
It is rare that we truly get to experience a person beyond the sum of the labels, qualities and impressions we assign them. When you can accept — and at times admire — someone because of, in spite of and beyond the sum of their qualities, this is what I would call love.
Love — that love which we understand only through experience and cannot, can never, fully describe — seems to be the best antidote to the symptoms of mental health.