Orwell feared that we would be destroyed by the things we fear – the state surveillance apparatus so vividly evoked in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Huxley’s nightmare, set out in Brave New World, his great dystopian novel, was that we would be undone by the things that delight us. —
Brave New World was published in 1932. The title comes from Miranda’s speech in Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “Oh, wonder! / How many goodly creatures are there here! / How beauteous mankind is! Oh brave new world, / That has such people in’t.”
It is set in the London of the distant future – AD 2540 – and describes a fictional society inspired by two things: Huxley’s imaginative extrapolation of scientific and social trends; and his first visit to the US, in which he was struck by how a population could apparently be rendered docile by advertising and retail therapy. As an intellectual who was fascinated by science, he guessed (correctly, as it turned out) that scientific advances would eventually give humans powers that had hitherto been regarded as the exclusive preserve of the gods. And his encounters with industrialists like Alfred Mond led him to think that societies would eventually be run on lines inspired by the managerial rationalism of mass production (“Fordism”) – which is why the year 2540 AD in the novel is “the Year of Our Ford 632”.
In the novel Huxley describes the mass production of children by what we would now call in vitro fertilisation; interference in the development process of infants to produce a number of “castes” with carefully modulated levels of capacities to enable them to fit without complaining into the various societal and industrial roles assigned to them; and Pavlovian conditioning of children from birth.
In this world nobody falls ill, everyone has the same lifespan, there is no warfare, and institutions and marriage and sexual fidelity are dispensed with. Huxley’s dystopia is a totalitarian society, ruled by a supposedly benevolent dictatorship whose subjects have been programmed to enjoy their subjugation through conditioning and the use of a narcotic drug – soma – that is less damaging and more pleasurable than any narcotic known to us. The rulers of Brave New World have solved the problem of making people love their servitude. —
…our runaway infatuation with the sleek toys produced by the likes of Apple and Samsung – allied to our apparently insatiable appetite for Facebook, Google and other companies that provide us with “free” services in exchange for the intimate details of our daily lives – might well turn out to be as powerful a narcotic as soma was for the inhabitants of Brave New World.