Brave New World

This classic novel, often read in high school, evaded my gaze for years. I had read 1984, another classic dystopian novel, but avoided Huxley’s masterpiece. When listening to an Atlantic podcast, however, the speakers spoke of how the world was growing more into Brave New World than 1984, I felt the need to read it. And I’m glad I did, because there are some cautionary tales for today.

Huxley imagined a world 600 years into the future, where the Henry Ford approach to efficiency and production conquered every aspect of life. Babies were no longer grown inside of women, they were grown in test tubes, and moved along a conveyor belt for nine months, until ‘birth.’ Humans were conditioned to think certain things through sleep-conditioning, where certain phrases were whispered into their ears hundreds of times a night — causing them to simply believe things were true because they had heard it enough times. I thought it clever to avoid the term brainwashing, which has negative connotations, and to use conditioning, which is something we use in everyday language. In addition, five classes were bred, from Alpha through Epsilon, and each was given its place in stable society. Naturally, a couple of inquiring minds are at the heart of the story, and one visits the ‘savages,’ or those who choose to live close to the lives we live today. A savage is brought back and shown civilization, which initially impresses him and then ultimately horrifies him, driving him away again.

There are some very interesting social commentaries throughout the story, including the observation that a stable society rests on very specific behaviors from its citizens. Citizens, therefore, become obligated to behave in a certain way, and in this context, they have been infantilized to simply do work and pursue pleasures and consumption. There are no ranges of emotions, no striving, no exploration of ideas, no religion, no art, no cinematic excellence; these all stem from haves / have nots, or conflict, or fighting against odds, and so this society has removed them under the assumption that simple pleasure is better than the rewards after struggle and achievement. Huxley hits upon another controversial but quite apt observation in establishing five castes, and only allowing the alpha caste to retain superior knowledge and have the option to not be infantile, only the suggestion. Other castes are weakened through the gestation process so their minds are dimmer. The commentary that ‘even Epsilons are useful’ while being horrified by them probably reflects today’s society better than many of us would care to admit. The Deltas are perfectly happy, because at least there’s a group below them.

It was fascinating that Huxley, in 1932, envisioned a day when everyone had helicopters take them from skyscraper to skyscraper; we are beginning to see those developments today with air taxis starting to deploy around the world. In addition, he proposed soma as essentially LSD without the after-effects, giving people otherworldly experiences and allowing them to escape reality. Forms of alcohol and marijuana are moving in this direction, eliminating the worst of the hangover effects, and I can envision the legalization movement proposing something like this well into the future.

Another topic he didn’t address directly, but that sort of lurks on the sidelines, is the question of: what happens when society fulfills everyone’s basic needs? It’s a question that I fervently hope is answered in my lifetime, where any person born in the world has access to the bare necessities of life (water, food, shelter, clothing, etc). Once society has enough, what then? Does more and more time become leisure? There is one passage where the Controller says that they could reduce workdays down to 3–4 hours, but that an experiment tried that, and the people were less happy because they had too much leisure time. It’s a fascinating question, as robots and automation take over more jobs, and great thinkers of today are spending a lot of brainpower envisioning what society should look like under these conditions — a universal basic income, universal healthcare, shorter work weeks, etc.

The parallels with society that I think the Atlantic speaker was referring to are probably around the lack of people engaging their minds and enjoying the struggle to newfound understanding. People were perfectly content living in a ‘utopia’ that told them what to do and conditioned them to never question the order of things. Rather than wearily obliging a leader with an undercurrent of resistance, they fully accepted the life heaped upon them. I see this manifesting through the withdrawal from public engagement, the inability of people to discuss controversial topics, and the lack of interest in finding solutions to big challenges.

It is a worthwhile book, I’m happy to have read it, and would recommend it to anybody who has not crossed paths with it thus far in life.