#23: Aldous Huxley v George Orwell

My hellish vision of the world is better than yours!

Hi,

Here’s a brief post on tech-dystopianism to cheer you up during a pandemic!


Reading time: 2 minutes

“[We] no longer talk to each other, we entertain each other. [We] do not exchange ideas, we exchange images. [We] do not argue with propositions; we argue with good looks.”

Neil Postman

During the coronavirus pandemic, an excerpt from Dean Koontz’s 1981 novel The Age of Darkness, has been doing the rounds on social media, with many claiming he predicted the outbreak.

He’s not the first writer to have been heralded as prophetic - Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein predicted modern transplants, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels anticipated the discovery of Mars’ two moons and Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea foresaw the submarine.

These were all remarkable coincidences, no doubt, but if you want to read a book offering truly remarkable foresight, I suggest Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985).

Orwell vs Huxley

The central argument of Postmans’s book is this:

There are two landmark, early 20th Century dystopian books – Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and 1984 by George Orwell.

For years, in the West, we feared and obsessed over the scary vision portrayed by Orwell – an information-censoring, movement-restricting, surveillance state. In fact, it seems to be Huxley’s dystopian future – a technology-sedating, consumption-engorging, instant-gratifying bubble, which came to pass.

Postman argues, why bother going to the trouble of creating an Orwellian Big Brother, when the truth is far easier to obscure by drowning it in a "sea of irrelevance"?

Love Island anyone?

"Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us...Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.”

Neil Postman

In Huxley’s Brave New World (1927), his dystopian future foresaw the human race enslaved by a happy pill, called Soma.

I relate to this sentiment by picturing a pre-pandemic commuter-crushed morning train. On-board, passengers stare vacantly at their smartphones, scrolling their infinite social media feeds.

This technology serves as an electronic soma pill sedating the brain.

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.”

Neil Postman

Of course, whoever you believe was right, neither Orwell's nor Huxley's world is particularly appealing.

Either way, technology and innovation (both central themes of each novel) wait for no man. So, how ethically such progress is managed, will prove a major test for tech leaders and politicians in the years ahead. But ultimately, they will prove an historic test for democratic citizens all over the world - who must ask themselves, how much more we are willing to tolerate.

Because, no matter how much social engineering we endure, there is something about the human spirit that manages to break through, and heighten our awareness when something doesn’t quite feel right.

And, if Postman’s right, it’s not so amusing anymore.

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Thanks for reading,

Scott