Mindless Viral Internet Content is Aldous Huxley’s Drug Soma Come to Life
Mindless internet content is the perfect mind control, and people gleefully drink the Kool-Aid.
(This article original appeared as a long read over at Death and Taxes.)
The first paragraph of Aldous Huxley‘s classic dystopian novel, “Brave New World,” features the words “COMMUNITY, IDENTITY, STABILITY,” to describe the World State. The real world is quite different.
There is no real sense of community, not much identify, and while there is questing after stability, there is perhaps more tumult than ever. We don’t have a World State, but we have the closest thing to it: American hegemony, the great source of instability in the world. More interesting than any of these comparisons is Huxley’s fictional creation, the hallucinogenic happy drug, Soma. The futuristic opiate of the masses.
Huxley was well-versed in the use and analysis of psychedelic drugs; though not before he wrote “Brave New World.” As Huxley evolved, it was obvious that at some point he’d incorporate his hallucinogenic experiences and revelations into fiction, which he did with “Island.” Before that, Huxley was incredibly skeptical of drug-induced mystical experiences.
In the Epilogue to his novel “The Devils of Loudon,” Huxley had a go at all mind-altering substances. “In every case, of course, what seems a god is actually a devil, what seems a liberation is in fact an enslavement,” wrote Huxley.
Instead of making his fictional hallucinogenic drug a sublime experience in “Brave New World,” a sacrament from which people could cultivate the mind, Huxley opted instead to amplify psychedelics’ more dystopian characteristics. In this case, those drugs’ ability to numb human experience, thereby creating a sense that nothing outside the experience itself matters.
In that very same Epilogue, Huxley said something which I find far more interesting than his early negative attitude toward mind-altering substances.
“[C]rowd-delirium aroused by government agents, crowd-delirium in the name of orthodoxy, is an entirely different matter. In all cases where it can be made to serve the interests of the men controlling church and state, downward self-transcendence by means of herd-intoxication is treated as something legitimate, and even highly desirable.”
Huxley would stick to this line of thought throughout his life. Later, in fact, Huxley wasn’t so much concerned with psychedelic mind control, but other types. In a 1950s interview with Mike Wallace, for instance, Huxley expressed more concern about technological mind control. In other words, technological drugging or stupefaction.
“I don’t think there are any sinister persons deliberately trying to rob people of their freedom,” says Huxley, speaking of the United States. “But I do think there are a number of impersonal forces which are pushing in the direction of less and less freedom. And I also think there are a number of technological devices, which anybody… can use to accelerate this process of going away from freedom and imposing control.”
When pressed by Wallace to describe the forces and technology devices behind control, Huxley states:
“We mustn’t be caught by surprise by our own advancing technology. This has happened again and again in history. Technology has advanced and this changes social conditions, and suddenly people have found themselves in a situation which they didn’t foresee and doing all sorts of things they didn’t really want to do…. At present the television is being used quite harmlessly. I would feel it’s being used too much to distract everybody all the time… It’s an immensely powerful instrumentation… All technology is in itself morally neutral. These are just powers that can be used well or ill. It’s the same with atomic energy: we can either use it to blow ourselves up, or we can use it as a substitute for the coal and the oil, which are running out.”
“The dictatorship of the future I think will be very unlike the dictatorships which we’ve been familiar with in the immediate past,” said Huxley. “I think what is going to happen in the future is… that if you want to preserve your power indefinitely, you have to get the consent of the ruled. And this they will do partly by drugs… partly by these new techniques of propaganda.”
Huxley then talks about how power elite will bypass the “rational side of man,” appealing instead the subconscious, deeper emotions, and even humanity’s physiology. In effect, making humans actually love their slavery.
“I think this is the danger,” said Huxley. “That actually people may be in some ways happy under the new regime, but they will be happy in a situation in which they oughtn’t be happy.”
Television seems so innocuousness—a means for some light entertainment. In this way, it has great potential as a mind control agent. Had Huxley lived longer, what would he have thought of the internet? In one sense, he probably would have considered cyberspace, as Timothy Leary did, a technological, ethereal expression of the psychedelic experience. But, to my mind, he would also have recognized its mind control potential. He’d have recognized that it was a far more innocuous agent than television.
And this brings me in a stem-winding way to my point: stupid, titillating, mindless, self-indulgent, brain cell-killing internet content, from articles and videos to images and message boards. The internet has the capability, the depth, to offer so much, but on a mass level it offers so little.
Recently I’ve leveled my gaze at online contrarianism, which is great traffic bait but short on substance. I’ve also been particularly bothered by listicles (of which I’ve written a few, though always with an intent to educate), animal videos, stupid people behaving stupidly, celebrity coverage, forms of trolling, punditry, and the whole write-first-think-later paradigm that dominates the web. And those are just a few problems. Many more exist.
It seems to me that all of this internet detritus, this mass entertainment (I cannot think of a better term), is its own technological mind-altering substance. Instead of ingesting it, though, it bleeds into our eyes from LED screens, and mainlines itself into our central nervous systems. It pacifies, it humors us, makes us sad, dulls our senses, and often teaches us nothing. This is not to say that nothing good exists on the internet. Quite the contrary: one can learn a lot online. Even so, the internet is the technological equivalent of Huxley’s Soma drug in “Brave New World.”
Read the rest over at Death and Taxes.