Aldous Huxley: Prophet of our brave new digital dystopia
CS Lewis may be getting a plaque. But Huxley, for his foretelling of a society that loves servitude, is the true visionary
On 22 November 1963 the world was too preoccupied with the Kennedy assassination to pay much attention to the passing of two writers from the other side of the Atlantic: CS Lewis and Aldous Huxley. Fifty years on, Lewis is being honored with a plaque in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey, to be unveiled in a ceremony on Friday. The fanfare for Huxley has been more muted.
There are various reasons for this: The Chronicles of Narnia propelled their author into the Tolkien league; Shadowlands, the film about his life starring Anthony Hopkins, moved millions; and his writings on religious topics made him a global figure in more spiritual circles. There is a CS Lewis Society of California, for example; plus a CS Lewis Review and a Centre for the Study of CS Lewis & Friends at a university in Indiana.
Aldous Huxley never attracted that kind of attention. And yet there are good reasons for regarding him as the more visionary of the two. For one of the ironies of history is that visions of our networked future can be bracketed by the imaginative nightmares of Huxley and his fellow Etonian George Orwell. 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.
Huxley was a child of England’s intellectual aristocracy. His grandfather was Thomas Henry Huxley, the Victorian biologist who was the most effective evangelist for Darwin’s theory of evolution. (He was colloquially known as “Darwin’s Bulldog”.) His mother was Matthew Arnold‘s niece. His brother, Julian and half-brother Andrew both became distinguished biologists. In the circumstances it’s not surprising that Aldous turned out to be a writer who ranged far beyond the usual preoccupations of literary folk – into history, philosophy, science, politics, mysticism and psychic exploration. His biographer wrote: “He offered as his personal motto the legend hung around the neck of a ragged scarecrow of a man in a painting by Goya: Aún aprendo. I am still learning.” He was, in that sense, a modern Voltaire.
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.
Which brings us back to the two Etonian bookends of our future. On the Orwellian front, we are doing rather well – as the revelations of Edward Snowden have recently underlined. We have constructed an architecture of state surveillance that would make Orwell gasp. And indeed for a long time, for those of us who worry about such things, it was the internet’s capability to facilitate such comprehensive surveillance that attracted most attention.
In the process, however, we forgot about Huxley’s intuition. We failed to notice that 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. So even as we remember CS Lewis, let us spare a thought for the writer who perceived the future in which we would come to love our digital servitude.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013