Brave New Worlds

Obviously, the overarching title of this discussion, ‘Brave New Worlds ’ is made in reference to Aldous Huxley’s 1931 novel, which might be seen as either a futurist utopia or dystopian nightmare  depending on your worldview and your position within such a society. However, we might also compare Huxley’s vision of the future with George Orwell’s novel, 1984, written some 13 years after Huxley’s novel, where both societies are controlled by the apparatus of a totalitarian state. While a review of these books is not the object of this discussion, it might be useful to initially gain some perspective on the scope and accuracy of future predictions, as made by an earlier generation, as it may come to moderate any predictions we might wish to make on the future.

How might we start to compare the predictive accuracy of these two worldviews?

Of course, it has to be recognised that these were works of fiction rather than directly intended as predictions of future technology. However, there is clearly an aspect of each that is intended as a warning of some potential future world that might await, if humanity chooses certain paths. It might initially be suggested that Huxley’s vision of the future was possibly more forward looking in its technological scope compared to Orwell’s, although neither appears to have been particularly prescient in hindsight. However, as indicated, neither book was really focused on the future of technology, but rather focused on the potential transformation of society. On a comparative level, Orwell’s future is essentially rooted in a particularly joyless extrapolation of a 1944 war-torn London, where the imposition of a totalitarian state appears to have been primarily imposed just using the technology of two-way telescreens, which allowed those in power to spy on its population. Of course, we might still see some parallels in this type of socio-political prediction in nation-states like North Korea, although the technology that might support such a level of suppression has already become far more sophisticated than Orwell foresaw. In contrast, Huxley’s ‘brave new world’ presents a society that includes space travel, private helicopters, genetically engineered test tube babies, birth control via conception pills, recreational drugs, hormone-laced chewing gum, all of which might appear more insightful in respect to current technology developments. However, in a later publication in 1950, Huxley added a foreword that would, in part, reflect on a generation of technical developments in which the unforeseen implications of an atomic age are highlighted. In this context, we might see how easy it is for predictions to completely miss the impact of just one future and essentially unknown technology. Of course, today, we are now positioned some 4 generations after Huxley’s novel was first published, such that we now have the insight of the invention of the transistor (1948), discovery of DNA (1953), integrated circuits (1959), computer processors (1971), the internet (1983), the worldwide web (1990), mapping of human genome (2003), Facebook (2004), AI Deep Learning (2011) etc. In this respect, we might recognize the fragility of most predictions, being both limited and one-dimensional, when failing to foresee the total implications stemming from accumulating technological change, let alone the compounding effects on the entire ‘human ecosystem’.

Note: It has often been argued that the technology ‘evolution’ will not happen in isolation from other socio-political developments. Of course, the other side of this argument is that any futuristic vision of a totalitarian state will not exist without a corresponding dependency on future technology developments. While we might simply extrapolate the scope of this technology in the form of increased security surveillance using ubiquitous CCTV cameras, there is also the added possibility of AI-enhanced face recognition coupled to databases of dissenting activists and the use of personal metadata to track both collective and individual activity. So while North Korea might have initially imposed its form of totalitarianism without such technology, its long-term stability may still depend on how it is able to utilize such technology developments in the future. Of course, such technologies may also be a threat to present-day democracies.

We might also recognize that neither Huxley’s or Orwell’s novels make much reference to the development of global economics, which has influenced which political ideologies have stood the test of time in the face of free market competition. For while socio-political change and technology developments are obviously coupled, such changes are also dependent on the economy of a given society to compete within global markets subject to ever-changing supply and demand. However, while Orwell’s technological predictions may appear to have been particularly limited, his concern that ‘truth was fading from the world ’ might appear to have some obvious parallels with the current development of ‘fake news’ and the apparent bias that many funded news organizations now appear to sanction by only reporting ‘facts’ supportive of a certain ideology.

But is totalitarianism really the threat?

In Orwell’s future, totalitarianism is characterized by the idea of ‘big brother’ who imposes near total control over the actions and even desires of the larger ‘majority’ and where history can be simply rewritten to meet the changing demands of propaganda. Within the historical context of 1944, we might realize that the devastation of the Second World War was still fresh in Orwell’s mind as he sat down to write ‘1984’. For this was a world only just starting to recover from the totalitarianism imposed by Adolph Hitler in Germany, Benito Mussolini in Italy and the perceived threat of Josef Stalin in the Soviet Union. In contrast, Huxley wrote his novel before the menacing threat of this form of totalitarianism became so obvious, such that his description of totalitarianism simply subdues a population into believing that the imposition of control is in the best interest of society as a whole. However, in the modern context, we might perceive that both Huxley and Orwell were writing about the tension between the ideology of collectivism and individualism.

Note: We might initially characterise collectivism and individualism in terms of two distinct ideologies, i.e. communism and capitalism, although this might now be seen as a somewhat historic perspective. However, we might simply use these labels to characterise the ideological tension between two worldviews, as they still exist in the world and continue to divide social, political and economic opinion. As a footnote, history seems to suggest that neither extreme works in practice.

However, Huxley’s brave new world was not really about ruling by oppression, as there may be perceived benefits in living in the ‘utopia’ of a civilized world as oppose to that of the savage, even though this utopia comes at a price. In a dialogue between one of the world’s controllers, Mustapha Mond, and the savage, John, the controller tries to explain the need for the brave new world that has been created.

“… our world is not the same as Othello’s world. You can’t make flivvers without steel and you can’t make tragedies without social instability. The world’s stable now. People are happy; they get what they want, and never want what they can’t get. They’re well off; they’re safe; they’re never ill; they’re not afraid of death; they’re blissfully ignorant of passion and old age; they’re plagued with no mothers or fathers; they’ve got no wives, or children, or loves to feel strongly about; they’re so conditioned that they can’t help behaving as they ought to behave. And if anything goes wrong, there soma.”

From our current perspective, we might see an inherent flaw in Huxley’s brave new world, which depends on the segregation of society into different functional classes at birth, where the idea of social-mobility is not even a consideration. However, the savage’s dilemma might be characterised in the form of an old joke where one fish asks another fish ‘how's the water?’ and the other fish replies, ‘what the hell is water?’ Of course, from the perspective of the reader, we might recognise that the savage is out of time and place in Huxley’s brave new world, but so are we, for the savage is the product of another world that has imposed its own form of indoctrination and conditioning on him, as are we. In the end, the controller simply highlights the choice that was made.

“The savage was silent for a little. All the same, he insisted obstinately, Othello is good, Othello’s better than those feelies. Of course it is, the controller agreed. But that’s the price we have to pay for stability.

In this respect, the inhabitants of our future world will probably have to pay a price for stability of their society in the face of mounting pressure on the environment and need for resources, which we might link to an increasing global population compounded by the not unreasonable aspiration of a better life. At this point in time, modernity in its many facets has helped many towards a better life; however, we need to consider the possibility that many people, even the majority, may not necessarily continue to be the beneficiary of future technological progress, especially if it only leads to ever greater wealth and social inequality. Therefore, we may have to ask ourselves some fairly uncomfortable questions about the role, and possibly the purpose of human life, in terms of the 10 billion individuals projected to populate the ‘brave new world’ of 2050. As such, future generations may have to confront the question:

What price is it willing to paid for stability AND sustainability?