If Orwell’s “1984” is a cautionary tale about what we in the capitalist West largely avoided, Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” is largely about what we got — a consumerist, post-God happyland in which people readily stave off aging, jet away on exotic vacations and procreate via test tubes. They have access to “Feelies” similar to IMAX 3-D movies, no-strings-attached sex, anti-anxiety pills and abortion on demand. They also venerate a dead high-tech genius, saying “Ford help him” in honor of Henry Ford just as today we practically murmur “In Jobs We Trust.”
In many ways the book, which was published 80 years ago this winter, has become sci-non-fi. It is still developing, taking on additional richness according to the times in which we read it.
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Huxley also foresaw a disturbing partnership between the state and capitalism but didn’t anticipate how little need for government collusion sophisticated marketers would need to reorder society. In “Brave New World,” the state has suppressed all simple sports because they don’t require lots of expensive equipment to keep the economy humming. Instead, it relentlessly hypes complicated tech-y activities such as “electromagnetic golf.” A couple of generations ago, kids might have bought one baseball glove and one bat that would last for years. Today they instead spend hundreds of dollars on Xbox 360s and games that quickly become boring and demand to be replaced with upgraded versions.
Thanks to subliminal messages repeated thousands of times in nurseries while kids sleep, the “Brave New World” characters grow up conditioned to accept a disposable society in which everyone is always hungry for the latest thing and simply discards the old. Huxley would be surprised to see that no such indoctrination is necessary to make people throw away an iPhone that was state of the art three years ago and line up overnight to get a slightly improved version.
In his classic Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business Neil Postman argued that Huxley’s dystopia was coming to fruition more than that of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949):
Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing.
Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression.
But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books.
What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.
Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information.
Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.
Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us.
Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.
Orwell feared we would become a captive culture.
Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure.
In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us.
Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.
. . . Huxley, not Orwell, was right.