Beyond a Brave New World - Part 3: Truth

In a Brave New World we have so many definitions of truth that we no longer know its meaning.

Beyond a Brave New World - Part 3: Truth

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.

Bread and Circuses — The Distraction of Consumption

'We no longer buy oranges, we buy vitality. We do not buy just a car, we buy prestige.' And so with all the rest. In toothpaste, for example, we buy, not a mere cleanser and antiseptic, but release from the fear of being sexually repulsive.

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited (1958).

It is hard to believe that any science has advanced more in the last two decades than the science of selling. Backed by artificial intelligence and the increases in data collection and processing power enabled by modern technology, behavioural science is used by almost every large organisation in the world, private or public, to sell products or ideas.

As an early Facebook employee put it in 2011, ‘the best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.’

This method of psychological selling was largely popularised in the early twentieth century by the ‘father of public relations’ and nephew of Sigmund Freud, Edward Bernays. Back then this manipulation was much more speculative. Insights came from the propagandist’s intuition or focus-groups. Now, personal devices collect data on every digital interaction we engage in. More and more of our attention has been drawn from the reality around us and into elaborate digital fantasies, designed to amplify our deepest insecurities to trigger purchases that will alleviate them. Only temporarily, of course.

We trade our ability to experience a moment fully for the opportunity to capture it digitally. We derive further pleasure from the audience of virtual voyeurs on social media. In return for providing us with this audience, we are compelled to be the audience for the advertisers.

A society, most of whose members spend a great part of their time not on the spot, not here and now and in the calculable future, but somewhere else, in the irrelevant other worlds of sport and soap opera, of mythology and metaphysical phantasy, will find it hard to resist the encroachments of those who would manipulate and control it.

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited (1958).

Escapism is not, in and of itself, a problem. It can lead to a broadening of the imagination, or at the very least a brief respite from the suffering of reality. But rather like with calories, the human brain does not automatically resist having too much of it. Becoming trapped in compulsive cycles is what really does us in. The cycle of consumption leaves us vulnerable.

Truly, the talk of Metaverses ever greater virtuality is perhaps the most worrying indication. How much control can you possibly have in a virtuality created by someone else? The beautiful thing about reality is that is has its own rules. Even though we stack more malleable rules top, it is still possible to test one’s beliefs against a world beyond human manipulation.

The is more Dishonesty in a Half Truth than a Lie

In regard to propaganda, the early advocates of universal literacy and a free press envisaged only two possibilities: the propaganda might be true, or it might be false. They did not foresee what in fact has happened, above all in our Western capitalist democracies — the development of a vast mass communications industry, concerned in the main neither with the true nor the false, but with the unreal, the more or less totally irrelevant. In a word, they failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions.

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited (1958).

The propaganda of the past was chiefly based on trying to convince as many people as possible of a given truth. With modern communications and the ubiquity of communications devices, it has become unnecessary to control exactly what people see and hear. It is now possible to flood the communications channels with nonsense. The result is that people believe nothing that they didn’t already. This is the exact tactic championed by one of Russia’s former senior political figures, Vladislav Surkov, known as one of the founding fathers of Putinism.

In Russia, the main political party and most of the opposition are both controlled by the state. To quote the Russian former World Chess Champion Gary Kasparov, ‘every country has its own mafia. Putin’s Russia is the first where the mafia has its own country.’ Not only this, the Kremlin also make it public knowledge that they set up false opposition. By making it impossible for people to tell what is real opposition and what is merely a smokescreen, it is far more difficult for real opposition to gain any ground. Political theatre replaces political reality.

In the West, the distraction is less calculated but equally devastating. It has become impossible to tell how much support a political candidate truly has because anyone who disagrees with a popular candidate can claim that their popularity is only the result of manipulation. How much of a candidate’s popularity is derived from fake news, ballot rigging or any other set of accusations that can be made by the loser of a democratic event?

And this is only true of those who are still paying attention to politics in the sense of governance, as opposed to those who politicise everything (including the very entertainment programming which distracts from issues of governance) to those who have checked out altogether.

As the art and science of manipulation come to be better understood, the dictators of the future will doubtless learn to combine these techniques with the non-stop distractions which, in the West, are now threatening to drown in a sea of irrelevance the rational [information] essential to the maintenance of individual liberty and the survival of democratic institutions.

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited (1958).

‘Sea of irrelevance’ is how I would describe most of the ‘news’ I see nowadays. Even the stories which seem like they must by immediately pertinent (see all the apparent indications of the beginning of World War 3 in the last two years) all seem to fade into the void of history that is yesterday when new celebrity gossip wipes collective memory clean. My phone screen feels suspiciously like the glass of a goldfish bowl, as I am encouraged to replace yesterday’s tragedy with today’s drama. Our insensitivity to the waves of nonsense we are bombarded with is captured in the film Don’t Look Up. It struck me while watching it that if I was to see, say, an Instagram post about a comet due to hit Earth in six months, I would probably ignore it. Indeed, we are encouraged not to look up from our phones and see the world for what it is.

How does the individual navigate these choppy 21st century waters? How do you avoid wandering the waves without direction or running aground on the digital Pleasure Island that is the Metaverse and becoming stranded?

Permanent crisis justifies permanent control of everybody and everything by the agencies of the central government.

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited (1958).

Questions about when Covid will be considered in the same vein as influenza abound.

Similarly, it would be interesting to know how much the 1919 influenza pandemic contributed to the rise in authoritarian regimes in the 1930s. There have certainly been investigations into disease increasing political conservatism as a kind of disgust response.

Of course, once imminent disaster is visible to the naked eye, there is no more arguing about who was wrong or right in the threads of virtuality. Reality asserts herself and the world falls silent.

Confusing the Map with the Terrain

The wish to impose order upon confusion, to bring harmony out of dissonance and unity out of multiplicity, is a kind of intellectual instinct, a primary and fundamental urge of the mind... the Will to Order has produced many premature syntheses based upon insufficient evidence, many absurd systems of metaphysics and theology, much pedantic mistaking of notions for realties, of symbols and abstractions for the data of immediate experience.

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited (1958).

In modern terms, this Will to Order can be thought of as a kind of cognitive bias.

As human beings we use concepts to represent the world around us and we use symbols to represent those concept. We describe the world in many ways — with numbers, words, paint — but it all amounts to the same thing. We are communicating our concept of the world to ourselves and to others. Unfortunately, we have a tendency to confuse these concepts for reality itself.

In a world where information is increasingly unsure, independence of mind has become independence of reality. It is time for decision-makers to stop blindly trusting statistics over their senses.

My call is for us to stop imposing our models onto reality and to turn away from the abstract and towards the tangible. Spend more time outside in nature and be deeply present with those you love. Step outside of the goldfish bowl and see the undistorted reality around you as best you can.

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