Thoughts From the Brave New World

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There was a thing, as I’ve said before, called
Christianity…
All the crosses had their tops cut and became T’s.
There was also a thing called God.
We have the World State now and Ford’s Day
celebrations and Community Sings and Solidarity
Services.

There was a thing called Heaven; but all the same
they used to drink enormous quantities of
alcohol…

There was a thing called the soul and a thing called
immortality…

But they used to take morphia and cocaine.

Aldous Huxley puts these words in the mouth of the director of his dystopian society in a scene where the collapse of the world as we know it is narrated with an eery nonchalance.

Huxley’s classic novel has been on my list to read for quite some time and when a friend wanted to read it with me over the summer, I finally got down to it. Based on what I’d heard about the book, I was expecting to find some remarkable parallels between Huxley’s society and our own technological age. However, I wasn’t prepared for just how many powerful ways I would see the Spirit of the Age foreshadowed in this book.

In Huxley’s Brave New World, the old order of struggling for survival and working to achieve your goals has been replaced by a new society where scientific advancement has removed the need for pain, suffering, frustrated desires and social instability. People are genetically engineered to serve the specific needs of society and conditioned from infancy through hypnopaedic sleep training to embrace their lot in life. There is no disease and the effects of aging have been obliterated. There are no longer any causes for dissatisfaction or discontentment. And if anyone should find themselves experiencing strong emotions, there’s always soma, the feel-good drug that provides a euphoric escape from any unpleasantness.

The catch? In order to do away with the strong negative emotions that threaten the stability of the social order, the Brave New World has done away with marriage, family, and all strong and meaningful connections that bind humans to one another. They’ve done away with love. Everyone is trained in uninhibited promiscuous sexuality from childhood and words like fidelity, parents, and God have become indecent expressions. The high arts have been replaced by synthetic music and sensory experiences. Television and soma are ever-present as a constant distraction against any serious contemplation. Pleasure flows through the culture like a steadily dripping intravenous solution, deadening feeling.

Huxley paints a picture of an existence that most of us would no doubt categorize as no way to live. We don’t live in a society where Shakespeare and the Bible are forbidden and marriage is a dirty word. The high arts are still held in high regard by educated people and housed in museums that can be visited free of charge all over the country. We can still listen to opera and classical music radio stations in every major city in this country. Unfortunately, I think these ways in which our culture isn’t like Huxley’s can be a dangerous distraction from a myriad of ways in which it is.

Technology in our time has ushered in an era that is unprecedented in history. Mechanization has drastically reduced the need for quantitative manpower and a few people can easily complete work that once required thousands of laborers. Whereas humanity used to be engaged in a constant struggle for survival, the means of production are rapidly evolving to a point where this struggle is no longer necessary. In order to accommodate the resulting leisure opportunities, virtual and passive entertainment forms have become increasingly central in the lives of millennials.

Gaming provides opportunities for activating the brain’s rewards system and giving users the illusion of accomplishment. Smartphone technology provides instant access to many forms of mindless entertainment or pleasure simulations, from Candy Crush Saga to pornography. Apps like Snapchat allow smartphone users to feel informed about world events and trends with daily news and fashion feeds but all of these news outlets look more and more like tabloids every year. Rather than promoting serious observations, research or deep thought, they stimulate users on a shallow level with short articles centered on pop culture figures, gossip tidbits and useless trivia. They promote a hook-up culture in which meaningful, committed, long-term sexual relationships are replaced by cheap one-night stands and love and friendship are divorced from sexuality.

Are we happier for all this? Are we happier now that we live at a level of physical and material comfort that none of our ancestors ever experienced?

I think if we’re honest with ourselves, we can see that this influx of consumer media has resulted in the loss of many important elements of the human experience. There’s no longer any need for boredom or contemplation or pondering the hard facts of reality and the questions of existence that enhance our humanity. There’s little motivation to expend effort towards achieving long-term goals when so many short-term goals are instantly attainable.

What is it that’s missing? What is it that the human heart hungers for so desperately and that can’t be fulfilled by ending world hunger or unemployment, by giving people everything they want? Why is it that what we think we want is never really what we want after all?

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“God, you have made us for yourself,” St. Augustine wrote, exposing the emptiness of all the pleasures in the world, “and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in You.”