Wednesday, March 09, 2005

"Brave new world" and our future

So I am back after a long break (longer then what I intended it to be) and I decided to relieve myself of a long pending post, by putting into words some rather abstract ideas in my mind. This post will be primarily concerned with reviewing and interpreting Aldous Huxley’s The brave new world. When I first started with the novel I thought it was a science fiction. Yes, it has a lot of elements in a science fiction novel, but it is much beyond that. It is a prophecy on our society and as it happens to be quite accurate it is also a grave warning for our future. It is extra-ordinarily prophetic considering that it was written in 1930s.

The novel presents a future society (nearly 600 years into future) which is on the surface a utopian society. Everybody (well, nearly everybody) is happy, there is no violence of any kind and society is very stable. But just below the surface it presents quite a few horrors – everybody is happy because they are not allowed to think of anything beyond their day-to-day work. After their work, to divert them they have unlimited sex, since there is no family setup and anybody can and should mate with everyone else in the society. They also have feelies for more divertion, which seem to be horribly close to the current movies with virtual reality added. They have pretty sophisticated sports which are our simple sports adapted to use a heavy amount of machinery to encourage consumerism. And of course if nothing of this is of any use, then they take soma – the drug which relieves them from reality. So this is how they remain “happy”. Their Happiness is not by a quest and oneness with Truth, but by denying the existence of Truth and refusing to search for it. To maintain this social order all the babies are raised in bottles fed with nutrition (since there are no mothers) and also there is a strict classification of people into classes – alpha, beta, gamma, delta and epsilon and into some sub-classes like alpha plus. Each class is to do a specific kind of work like intellectual work for alpha. And they can do only that, since they are psychologically taught so from childhood and some enzymes are used to restrict their functionality. In fact the alphas are only one who can “think”. Cloning is also used widely, though Huxley uses a different terminology for that, and in the lower classes many hundreds of people are from the same clone (since that helps preserve social order more). The novel then shows how somebody who comes from a civilization like us (the savage), feels in this kind of a world.

Now this is only some piece of fiction and why should we bother about it? Because our society (especially the western society) is quite close in some aspects to it. The family structure has degraded and sexual promiscuity is an ever increasing and accepted part of our society. Entertainment and media is increasingly being looked at as a way to ‘escape’ from reality. The use of drugs has been increasing and media promoted consumerism means we consume more than we ever did, even if don’t know what to do with the waste material generated. And worse I am also able to figure out how the society may be lead in the same direction. So here is my theory. Whatever appears below is only my interpretation of the novel.

The novel is unique that unlike many other dystopian novels (like “1984”), the society has elements of socialism and capitalism. As a socialist totalitarianism, the government scrutinizes all media and scientific research, so that no “truth” is revealed. Also there is total lack of individuality and a lot of collectivism. But there are unmistakable capitalistic traits like use of mass-production, consumerism and of course other things that I have mentioned above. As a result of these socialistic traits of the novel it is difficult to imagine how such a society can result from a society like ours, though I think I have the answer for this. The answer also lies in the novel, in the final chapters of the wonderful dialogue between the savage and the world controller. The world controller explains that the quest for truth and beauty (science and art) must be controlled to reach a state of happiness. He remarks at a point

(The world controller to the savage)

“It's curious," …"to read what people in the time of Our Ford used to write about scientific progress. They seemed to have imagined that it could be allowed to go on indefinitely, regardless of everything else. Knowledge was the highest good, truth the supreme value; all the rest was secondary and subordinate. True, ideas were beginning to change even then. Our Ford himself did a great deal to shift the emphasis from truth and beauty to comfort and happiness. Mass production demanded the shift. … Still, in spite of everything, unrestricted scientific research was still permitted. People still went on talking about truth and beauty as though they were the sovereign goods. Right up to the time of the Nine Years' War. That made them change their tune all right. What's the point of truth or beauty or knowledge when the anthrax bombs are popping all around you? That was when science first began to be controlled–after the Nine Years' War.”

(Emphasis by italics original, by bold mine)

Even in this short extract there are many interesting things. Huxley indicates that industrialization caused the shift from the truth to comfort. This of course supports my theory. But I don’t agree that “in spite of everything unrestricted scientific research was permitted”. We agree to carry out research in areas where we don’t know how to handle the outcome (like in human cloning, for instance), not only because we want to search for truth – but we have powerful corporations who have put or ready to put in millions of dollars in it and hence lobby for it. Industrialization makes us search ruthlessly, heartlessly for at least a part of the “truth” which is profitable to the industries, at least in the short term. Huxley makes a slight jump now, talking about the Nine Year’s war. He doesn’t explain anywhere how unrestricted scientific research leads to the war. That is for us to make out – and given the current global situation we are one of the best equipped to do it since sometime in history. Unrestricted research and their unrestricted use has produced nuclear weapons and only now we are discovering how close the two superpowers of the world were, to using it during the cold war. We refuse to stop the unrestricted use of our environment, despite threats of global warming and umpteen other hazards. What I mean here is that our world is increasingly becoming unstable. It may be either due to increasing threat of terrorist’s attacks and its reactions which can lead to a situation like the Nine Year’s war – or it may be just the instability in our environment which may finally boomerang on us.

Now my theory is that when such a thing happens, the (surviving) human kind’s reactions would be over-cautious, which would be to strictly regulate all forms of art and science. And of course to prevent us from being aware that they are being regulated the vices of our capitalistic society come in handy – escapist entertainment, unrestricted sexual promiscuity, mindless consumerism and its endless “innovations” and free use of drugs. Now my theory explains logically how our society can progress to society as depicted in the novel.

What can we do to avoid this? Huxley doesn’t directly answer this question. In fact in some places, he hints that he has lost hope with this society and a society as depicted in the novel is the only possibility for human kind to survive. Now I won’t be so pessimistic. I still think we can do something, but time may be soon running out. We should not think of technology as an end in itself - scientific research, at least in some areas should be restricted and its use even more restricted. We also need to fully rethink (though we are already doing this partly) the basis of our industrialization and define the line between need and greed. Mindless consumerism results in over-consumption and this should not be allowed to prevent a sustained use our environment. In short instead of creating an unsustainable paradise for the elite of the present generation, we should create a sustainable living place for all the people of the next several generations. The above may not be easily implementable suggestions, but that alone can’t undermine their correctness.

Many may disregard this as a paranoid conspiracy theory, but using the reasoning I followed this does seem to be a distinct possibility and we need to prepared for it. I would be eager to debate on any flaws in my reasoning or even otherwise about this post.

My commentary ends here. The following is an interesting quote from the novel, which talks of relevance of god in the “brave new world”. This and previous quote was got from the full text version of novel at Chapters 16 & 17 form the crux of the work and can be read even by itself.

"Quite so. I'll read you one of the things he did dream of in a moment. Meanwhile, listen to what this old Arch-Community-Songster said." He opened the book at the place marked by a slip of paper and began to read. "'We are not our own any more than what we possess is our own. We did not make ourselves, we cannot be supreme over ourselves. We are not our own masters. We are God's property. Is it not our happiness thus to view the matter? Is it any happiness or any comfort, to consider that we are our own? It may be thought so by the young and prosperous. These may think it a great thing to have everything, as they suppose, their own way–to depend on no one–to have to think of nothing out of sight, to be without the irksomeness of continual acknowledgment, continual prayer, continual reference of what they do to the will of another. But as time goes on, they, as all men, will find that independence was not made for man–that it is an unnatural state–will do for a while, but will not carry us on safely to the end …'" Mustapha Mond paused, put down the first book and, picking up the other, turned over the pages. "Take this, for example," he said, and in his deep voice once more began to read: "'A man grows old; he feels in himself that radical sense of weakness, of listlessness, of discomfort, which accompanies the advance of age; and, feeling thus, imagines himself merely sick, lulling his fears with the notion that this distressing condition is due to some particular cause, from which, as from an illness, he hopes to recover. Vain imaginings! That sickness is old age; and a horrible disease it is. They say that it is the fear of death and of what comes after death that makes men turn to religion as they advance in years. But my own experience has given me the conviction that, quite apart from any such terrors or imaginings, the religious sentiment tends to develop as we grow older; to develop because, as the passions grow calm, as the fancy and sensibilities are less excited and less excitable, our reason becomes less troubled in its working, less obscured by the images, desires and distractions, in which it used to be absorbed; whereupon God emerges as from behind a cloud; our soul feels, sees, turns towards the source of all light; turns naturally and inevitably; for now that all that gave to the world of sensations its life and charms has begun to leak away from us, now that phenomenal existence is no more bolstered up by impressions from within or from without, we feel the need to lean on something that abides, something that will never play us false–a reality, an absolute and everlasting truth. Yes, we inevitably turn to God; for this religious sentiment is of its nature so pure, so delightful to the soul that experiences it, that it makes up to us for all our other losses.'" Mustapha Mond shut the book and leaned back in his chair. "One of the numerous things in heaven and earth that these philosophers didn't dream about was this" (he waved his hand), "us, the modern world. 'You can only be independent of God while you've got youth and prosperity; independence won't take you safely to the end.' Well, we've now got youth and prosperity right up to the end. What follows? Evidently, that we can be independent of God. 'The religious sentiment will compensate us for all our losses.' But there aren't any losses for us to compensate; religious sentiment is superfluous. And why should we go hunting for a substitute for youthful desires, when youthful desires never fail? A substitute for distractions, when we go on enjoying all the old fooleries to the very last? What need have we of repose when our minds and bodies continue to delight in activity? of consolation, when we have soma? of something immovable, when there is the social order?"

"Then you think there is no God?"

"No, I think there quite probably is one."

"Then why? …"

Mustapha Mond checked him. "But he manifests himself in different ways to different men. In premodern times he manifested himself as the being that's described in these books. Now …"

"How does he manifest himself now?" asked the Savage.

"Well, he manifests himself as an absence; as though he weren't there at all."


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