Aldous Huxley‘s Brave New World and George Orwell‘s Nineteen Eighty-Four were highly influential warnings of what the western world might become. They are both dystopian, futuristic science fiction novels in which the characters and plot are ancillary to the authors’ primary objectives: world-building and examining human nature.
The two worlds have striking similarities and contain thematic elements that seem all but essential to dystopian fiction. A catastrophic war occurs prior to the events of the book. Atop the rubble emerges a totalitarian regime and a submissive population. Society is rebuilt with a commitment not to repeat mistakes of the past. The society, by way of error, contains some ancient relics: a few flawed but comprehensible characters who feel alienated and mistrusting of the brutalist civilization around them. Both 1984 and Brave New World explore this tension.
Upon that backdrop, two different stories emerge from two different means of controlling the masses. In 1984, the government of Oceania portrays itself to its people as an omnipotent, omniscient, and foreboding force. The main character’s environment is bespattered with cameras, microphones, and posters of Big Brother, a propagandistic personification of the government. In the world Orwell created, the years following World War II represented only a mild setback in a global macro trend towards centralization and authoritarianism. Orwell was keen to notice that, despite popular political paradigms placing Nazi Germany on the far “right” and the Soviet Union on the far “left,” the two states were actually under the control of similar governments. He may have even foreseen how the Cold War would create economic and military alliances, the likes of which would turn the world into a checkerboard of communist and capitalist states. In 1984, the three world superpowers are in ideological gridlock and perpetual war.
Brave New World presents a happier but equally upsetting and, to some, scarier future. In this world, Henry Ford and Sigmund Freud, who are believed to be the same person, are the philosophical and spiritual grandfathers of the era. Humans are created in assembly lines where they are chemically conditioned into different castes (Huxley was not yet aware of genetic modification). Sex is no longer taboo, but the very notions of “family” and “motherhood” are. The population is easy to control, easier even than the people of Oceania, because they are, if not genuinely happy, superficially content. They go to “feelies,” movies that offer a completely sumbmerssive sensual experience where you feel what the actors feel. They take soma, a euphoria-producing medication that is ubiquitous to the point of being a dogmatic staple of their society. In short, the consumption of popular culture and products is cool and fun, so why worry about crap like finding meaning in life?
Orwell’s vision is more overtly frightening, and our focus on preventing it may have taken energy away from preventing Huxley’s. For example, Edward Snowden arrested our attention and concern when he revealed that the US Government has been using our technology as survellience while we drown in an ocean of entertainment via the same technology. Therein lies the ultimate irony: a conservative estimate is that we will take 1.2 trillion photos in 2017, many or most of which will be of or about ourselves.
Consumer culture has induced us to surveil ourselves not because we’re intimidated into doing so, but because it’s cool and fun.
But let’s not go too far…
I live in the United States in the year 2016 and not only have I had the chance to live a fulfilling and meaningful life, I can write and publish opinion pieces like this too. I’m one of those people who thinks you can be critical and grateful at the same time. I admit that while hammering this one out, I’ve been more cognizant of distractions than I normally am. I’m researching Huxley one moment and browsing cycling gear or watching SNL’s watered-down satire the next. This certainly doesn’t feel like dystopia, but it still is a brave new 1984.