The legitimately dystopian part of Brave New World are often technical in nature—effectively mind control through drugs and a caste system propped up by genetic engineering. These don't just require advances in technology but also a surprising level of social organization. Where 1984 feels like a continuous progression from a Soviet Union that never collapsed, these core parts of Brave New World comes of as discontinuous, a jump both socially and technically.
And without these extreme social and technical changes, it stops being a dystopia. If not for the eugenics, genetics and soma, it sounds like a nice place to live! Freer sex, freer entertainment, more automation, more leisure... It's radical, certainly, but not in a bad way—a radical departure from our current almost Puritan work ethic and our obsession with certain abstractions (the poorly defined "real vs superficial", "honor", "the dignity of work"¹...etc) sounds like just what we need.
I like giving people what they want, even if I think it's shallow or superficial. Then again, I've never been one to treat hedonism as a bad word.
That cartoon people like to pass around really captures my thoughts—in a way that's opposite to its intended message! It shows how some of the believable things in Brave New World are believable, but never shows why they're bad. It just assumes, and ties into cultural ideas (like "hard work is good" or "your life must have meaning") that many people don't question. But it misses the mark because it ignores the parts that are not plausible but actually created the dystopian environment.
The cartoon (much more than the book itself) is also a bit grating because I sense some condescending overtones. "Look at all those people who don't care about the world but just distract themselves with popular entertainment. How shallow!" Obviously you, the reader, do not belong to this group. And hey, I don't disagree per se—I think most popular distractions are shallow and have much better alternatives—but I also think there's nothing inherently wrong with enjoying them. I mean, I follow the news, I care about recent events and where does it get me? Nowhere. I guess I could vote² a bit better, but all it's done is sour me on all major candidates. Is this meaningfully better than comfortable ignorance? No, but people tell me it is. And here I am.
Really, Brave New World minus the implausible bits and with a larger dash of individual freedom thrown in is pretty much as far from dystopian as it can get. Radical, certainly, and jarring—very different from our current social order—but fundamentally good. It feels like it's just a few exaggerated risks thrown in to make leisure and entertainment seem crass and indolent. 1984, on the other hand, doesn't feel all that different from my parents' tales about the Soviet Union.
I know which one I'm more afraid of!
¹ I've always really disliked this phrase. It's one part rationalization and one part a way to keep people down and working even if they don't want to. Doing something menial or boring or easily automatable just for the sake of working is not my picture of dignity!
² Haha, no I can't, because I'm not a citizen. So I'd have to become a citizen first. It doesn't matter, but it is annoying.
Well, it's all fun and games if you happen to win the genetic dice roll and end up as an Alpha. I imagine it's considerably less fun if you're a Gamma.
More to the point, the world in Brave New World isn't dystopian on account of torture suffered, atrocities committed, or free expression squelched, a la 1984. The real horror of Brave New World is the complete reduction of the human race to a soulless, animalistic state. Or a robotic state, if you prefer that sort of analogy.
The humanity we encounter in Brave New World is a dead end: artistically, culturally, technologically, philosophically, and evolutionarily. This humanity will never reach beyond its comfort zone to achieve anything else. It will never colonize the solar system, or explore the stars. It will never make brilliant art, or profound discoveries. It will never question anything, and because it will never question anything, it will never improve itself. If you believe that humanity's crown jewel is its capacity for self-improvement and progress, then the world in Brave New World is a severely bleak one. It is a vision of the human race infantilized, neutered, and forever trapped in that infant state. (If there are any ihyperintelligent beings out there, bent on conquering Earth and rendering humanity a null threat, Brave New World reads like a perfect playbook).
On a visceral level, sure, I suppose I'd rather live in Huxley's dystopia than in Orwell's. That doesn't make Huxley's vision any less scary for me. Big Brother puts us in a cage; Huxley's society convinces us the cage doesn't exist.
From the standpoint of literary merit, 1984 is the superior book. But that's a whole different discussion, and I digress.
> Well, it's all fun and games if you happen to win the genetic dice roll and end up as an Alpha. I imagine it's considerably less fun if you're a Gamma.
Yes, from the external point of view of a book reader, i would prefer to "win the genetic dice roll". But if i were decanted as a Gamma, i wouldn't mind, i wouldn't prefer to be an Alpha, with all that complex work they do, i'd prefer my simpler life. The casts system in BNW works only because the members of each cast feel happy to belong to their cast.
> It will never question anything, and because it will never question anything, it will never improve itself.
This is actually why i think the vision of Huxley in BNW is not as dystopian as 1984 [spoilers of both books ahead!]: they not only not kill or get rid of the free thinkers (Bernard Marx and Helmholtz Watson) as they do in 1984, they actually send them to an island with an environment more suitable for their mental fostering, thus allowing new ideas to be born, and maybe very very gradually be introduced in the society.
Yeah, it's quite a bummer that no radical improvement can happen; the society could stuck in a local maximum. But it's a trade-off for stability, peace and abundance.
Would Huxley live today, i'd wager his vision of BNW would not include such a restrictive casts system. BNW's society had a great desire for efficiency, so it is expected that they would use computers to thoroughly automate as much labor as possible. And with that thorough automation, there'd be no need for conditioning humans to accept and do the worst kinds of labors that Deltas, Gammas and Epsilons do.
I guess the means of control applied to higher casts would still "make sense" in order to maintain social stability, which is rather discomforting. But without the restrictive casting system, that future doesn't seem as bleak.
Huxley's society functions largely because no one questions their role in it. Gammas have no aspiration to rise up because theu have been coached to not have any aspirations.
Thus doesn't this form of society rob humans of the ony characteristic that separates them
from animals?The ability to think, reason and make decisions for themselves. A world where humans cannot and ARE NOT allowed to think for themselves is definitely a horrible dystopia.
At least in 1984 some humans still have the ability to think for themselves.
In BNW they have no choice in the matter, unless of course they are born with
the ability, which again resembles the relative freedom of the Party members
from 1984. Come to think of it, the upper echelons of both societies
employ a sort of doublethink, whereby they convince themselves that what they are
doing is correct.
There really isn't much difference between the two societies, in 1984 the commoners
get to fuck and entertain themselves as they wish, and the same goes for
society in BNW.
I think that media, public discourse, entertainment and most especially industrial schooling are already tuned to condition people to accept servility to capital. There's a whole economic religion set up to perpetuate the superiority of the top 1% of the capitalist caste.
There's more to it, but it's not a conspiracy, it's not a conscious thing, but it is an emergent properly of the system we've set up, and individual incentives exist that perpetuate the system.
I think it's unstable - the trends observed by Piketty cannot continue for more than a few more decades without significant risk of social upheaval. But for now, the system is fairly unassailable, and it is very like BNW already.
The sheer number of sports/movie stars, well-off politicians and entrepreneurs in the US with humble beginnings don't give weight to your claim. Sure, there might be a top "caste" that
controls who can belong to that "caste", and very much tries to use the law to protect their collective wealth, but they don't have much control on the rest of the population's "caste mobility": http://www.verisi.com/resources/prosperity-upward-mobility.h...
It doesn't matter if there's a different 1% every year, if 1% owns 90+% of the wealth - and that's where trends are headed.
I think "deserved" wealth often isn't; a lot of it is luck of birth and opportunity, and more of it is being in a position of leverage to earn more by being high up in a hierarchy. But even if it is fully "deserved", it is still problematic.
What does "deserved" even mean in this context, anyway? It is not enough for wealth to be gotten by moral means, "deserved" must reflect a judgement by society as a whole, that everyone is in aggregate and justly better off by rewarding any particular person their particular share of everyone's future production (viewing wealth as a claim on future production).
So, the first question in my mind, is to define what characteristics you want to maximise in society. Without such a set of characteristics it's hard to say "this social structure is better".
I also think it's unlikely that a clear consensus on this metric can be found. That is, if it is even meaningful to create one.
Instead of Deltas, Gammas, and Epsilons doing awful labour, they will do none.
While CGP Grey has a very consumer-oriented view, it's quite compelling. www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Pq-S557XQU
I'm not sure I follow your logic from sentence A to sentence C here. I think I get what you're saying, but you kind of lose me on the point about "That's the same as saying there's no point to your work." Are you suggesting I've made a statement whose logical outcome is "There's no point to your work?"
"You're saying humans are going to stop being competitive."
That's not really what I said. I said humans in Huxley's world are going to stop trying. Trying, full stop. We can fill in the blank however we wish: trying to explore; trying to create; trying to question; trying to answer; trying to figure out; trying to obtain; trying to..., etc. Sure, I guess you could fit "compete" in there, but competition was not the crux of my point.
"And if we're relieved of the nagging sense that we have to achieve something, you could consider that a cure."
It's not about a "nagging sense that we have to achieve something." It's about a nagging sense that we can improve our lot beyond its current state, whatever that state happens to be. Maybe we can and maybe we can't. But we try, and over time, we usually do. It's not that the trying holds any intrinsic meaning -- and you'll notice that I've been very careful to avoid words like "meaning," which I find squishy and soft for arguments like these. Rather, it's that trying has a chance at improving our circumstances in some measurable way.
Even if you remove "meaning" from the act of trying, you can still place a value on trying. That value, very simply put, is the expected value of whatever you're trying to do/build/make/learn/achieve, plus any ancillary achievements/learnings/accomplishments/etc. along the way. (Recognizing, of course, that progress is not teleological or deterministic!)
Let's take this a step further, though. Let's play with the assumption that a life of care-free leisure is perfectly fine, if not exemplary. Ok. Then isn't a life of superior leisure and more entertainment even better? The citizens of Huxley's world -- at least the privileged Alphas -- have it pretty good, from a purely hedonic standpoint. But certainly they could have it even better. They never will, because they've lost their ability to wonder what "better" might be. That wonderment, even absent any intrinsic value, is still a very valuable thing to have lost.
Even if we evaluate Brave New World's society from a purely utilitarian standpoint, we conclude that society can do better. For example: a society based on pure leisure and entertainment, just as in BNW, but in which there are no subordinate/slave classes. That would be an improvement, I'd think.
And that's why Brave New World is far more frightening: an educated, intelligent person looks at it now and thinks, 'that's not so bad!'
Yes, BNW is a better dystopia to live in than 1984. But... it's still a dystopia. Free thinkers are socially ostracized, personal preferences (outside a certain set) are ignored, personal destiny is decided at conception (one case where the world of 1984 is preferable). It's a shocking world, and one that I wouldn't want to live in.
And inevitably, the discussion revolves around the fact that it's not as bad as 1984. As if "actually only the second-worst dystopia in classic fiction" is anything but damning.
Having a dystopia-off distracts from a significant part of the value that these works have to us as members of a society: There is more than one road to hell (and more than one hell to reach). 1984 shows an example of a possible future, why it is bad, and how it got that way. BNW shows an example of a very different future, why it is bad, and (less clearly) how it got that way. They give useful common ideas for possible outcomes of current actions. While BNW is preferable to 1984, it still shows that avoiding a 1984 outcome as hard as you can is not enough because there are other ways that freedom can be destroyed. To simply say "I would prefer my freedom be destroyed in one of these two ways" is not the most useful thing one can take away from reading these two books.
Let's conjugate together: "I understand X, you believe Y, they are obsessed with certain poorly defined abstractions T, U and V" (after the old saw: "I am erotic, you are kinky, they are perverted").
You reel off things like "Freer sex, freer entertainment, more automation, more leisure" as if all these things are an a priori universal good while values that you don't prize are wrapped up in a snarky prelude (people are apparently "obsessed" with "certain abstractions" that are "poorly defined"). Later on other people's ideas about the meaningfulness of life are presented as "cultural ideas" that "many people" don't question. Hilariously, you then go on to sense "condescending overtones" in a cartoon....
To quote the Dude: "Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man."
I don't doubt from your perspective that Huxley's dystopia doesn't sound so bad. I think that tells us more about you than it does about Huxley's dystopias.
These seems like crazy steps in our modern society, but keep in mind, Huxley was writing this in 1931. Eugenics were something readily embraced by the upper classes. The Soviet Union gravitated towards the totalitarian state it was, but at that time, it wouldn't have been crazy to imagine a government (imagine a less jingoistic Germany, with all the creativity and efficiency), creating something very much like what Huxley envisions. In fact, had the West not had the ongoing competition with the totalitarian Soviet Union, the capitalist impulses could have merged with a much larger government, and the United States, or Continental European powers could have turned into something like that. Constant conflict both militarily and ideologically may have been the only thing that prevented it.
> It's also a bit grating because I sense some condescending overtones. "Look at all those people who don't care about the world but just distract themselves with popular entertainment. How shallow!" Obviously you, the reader, do not belong to this group.
You may be right, but that's probably not fair to Huxley. In writing his book, he was speaking directly to his readers, trying to convince them that they were not so different from the utopia which he mocks.
> And hey, I don't disagree per se—I think most popular distractions are shallow and have much better alternatives—but I also think there's nothing inherently wrong with enjoying them. I mean, I follow the news, I care about recent events and where does it get me? Nowhere. I guess I could vote² a bit better, but all it's done is sour me on all major candidates. Is this meaningfully better than comfortable ignorance? No, but people tell me it is. And here I am.
But here's the thing. At that stage, you have two choices. Either realize that our societies are flawed and struggle to do something about it, whether you can turn the tide or not, or take the soma, act like the world is okay (in the West, or own small worlds often are perfectly fine), and do nothing. What is disconcerting about our society, and similar to Brave New World, is apathy and consumerism have caused a lot of people (not necessarily you), to fall into the latter column, which could very easily lead to 1984.
That's easy to say in California, but not New England. Mental models give one the ability to plan ahead, and are necessarily based on heuristics. Winter is coming.
Some specific heuristics, and the ways they are interpreted, are a bit outdated. But it sounds like you're advocating for letting go of independent moralistic thought, and going along with the flow of what feels good.
> It's also a bit grating because I sense some condescending overtones. "Look at all those people who don't care about the world but just distract themselves with popular entertainment. How shallow!" Obviously you, the reader, do not belong to this group ... I mean, I follow the news, I care about recent events and where does it get me? Nowhere
I take the opposite analysis - World events are a stratum of popular entertainment, and politicians are just a different set of celebrities. Each focused topic makes you feel a way, but it's ultimately tourism because your opinion on something that will not affect you and that you have no input to does not matter. Any discussion of topics where an intelligent decision could actually be reached ultimately get lost in the noise and clamped to one of two choices. Voting itself has devolved into a team sport where you channel all your built up outrage at the "other people" who are messing up the world, but it ultimately just signals assent to the entire system.
My two main points do seem a bit at odds, and I think the second is what causes people to depart from the first. They don't want to be like the people who cling to the first yet deny the second and thus spend their time shouting at the TV, especially as we all now carry self-activating TVs in our pockets. But I think the resolution is embodied in phrases such as "be the change you want to see in the world", "cypherpunks write code", etc. (Not that any mantra is free of problems, but I digress..)
What has moralistic thought ever done for us? No, seriously. Moral titans don't normally do good things because they've thought about it, they do it because they feel like it. Ethics professors IIRC behave less ethically in real life than their peers. Human moral instincts are pretty sound. While I'm usually all for a careful analysis, in this particular field it doesn't seem to have paid off.
Speaking more broadly, Orwell portrays a world where the freedoms of people are forcibly oppressed, whereas Huxley portrays a world where they are willingly oppressed. The people in Brave New World are more caught up in (what Huxley might call) a shallow culture, disinterested in the real world. This view does not seem so far fetched after all. Looking at the modern world, how easy it is to turn a blind eye to the troubles of far off countries when you are living in relative comfort?
Fahrenheit 451 is interesting novel to consider from this point of view as well, as I think it portrays a middle ground between these two extremes.
"Caste system via selective breeding," actually. If you believe Charles Murray, that's what we have now. We also have some huge fraction of the population taking soma pills, and while the words "father and mother" are not yet considered dirty words, we're half way there. I submit the reason you don't consider BNW a dystopia would be the uncomfortable realization that this is more or less the world we live in, minus the enlightened caste of "alphas."
I would agree though that not all aspects of the 'dystopian world' are bad, and it's very interesting to read his utopian book Island, that definitely embraces drug and hedonism, but in a different way.
Are they not realistic to us because we already exist in a kind of Huxleyan dystopia and therefore we simply perceive them as not bad?