As our world appears to be sliding inexorably toward a global surveillance state run at the behest of a crypto-fascist oligarchy, the incredibly prescient concepts, themes and words of famed authors Aldous Huxley and George Orwell ring ever more loudly in our collective ears, as harbingers of a dystopian future whose reality bears down upon us at frightening speed. But, the question remains: Whose vision is the closest to the reality with which we are soon to be confronted, if not now then certainly in the very near future?
At first glance, Huxley’s concept of a society drowning in a sea of irrelevant information and preoccupied with and distracted by trivia seems the more grounded in the reality of life in our contemporary Western society, a world that is increasingly dominated by mindless entertainment and amusement for its own sake (computer games, pornography, “infotainment”, lifestyle TV programming and “reality TV”), fascinated with celebrity (Hollywood stars, royalty, the “rich and famous”, gossip magazines and websites) and comprehensively fixated with superficial appearances (Facebook, cosmetic surgery, obsessive fitness regimes, fad diets). More troubling is that this is associated with a conscious and near complete rejection by the broader spectrum of our society of the significance of deductive reasoning, objective knowledge and an impartial view of historical fact. Similarly, there has been a significant diminution of the general appreciation of literature and reading as a means of broadening one’s experience and knowledge, a failure to appreciate the necessity for stringent adherence to scientific method and principle, and a lack of a realistic geopolitical perspective on matters that should be of paramount importance for not just ourselves, but our loved ones and those who descend from us. This institutionalised ignorance has been cynically coupled with the systematic conquest of individualism, self-reliant cognitive strategies and logical analysis through an overarching preponderance to default to collectivist group-think and an uncritical deference to perceived authority.
Huxley foresaw that governments and “the powers that be” would increasingly seek to exploit the apparently unquenchable thirst of the populace at large for aimless and mindless diversions to entertain them, the latter day equivalent mechanism of control of the masses to Juvenal’s famous observation regarding the efficiency of “panem et circenses” (bread and circuses) which characterised the socio-political landscape of the declining Roman Empire. This unhealthy modern fixation with such trivial constructs ultimately overwhelms our capacity to accurately prioritise information in order of relevance and importance, and diminishes our desire for knowledge and understanding leading to passivity, egocentrism and hedonism.
This “Brave New World” is conceived by Huxley as a totalitarian technocracy characterised by rigid and clearly demarcated social stratification, cradle to the grave brainwashing through hypnopaedic sleep teaching, the negation of the motivation to rebellion through the absence of war and conflict, and the destruction of the family unit with mother and father figures and life-long relationships absent. Personal freedoms are sacrificed for safety and the pleasure principle, the latter being reinforced by the use of drugs (“Soma”), “feelies” and by unconstrained sexual gratification without emotional context. Science is thus used by a ruthless government as the ultimate weapon to subvert the individual’s desire for self-determination, as well as a tool for structuring social hierarchy through genetic engineering. Many of these technological aspects of the dystopian world Huxley envisioned in his novel have indeed, in some way or shape or form, come to pass in our modern society as we experience it on entering the 21st Century.
George Orwell, on the other hand, imagined a far more overtly horrific and brutally repressed world, one of all-pervasive surveillance by an oppressive totalitarian regime embodied by and mediated through the supreme power and omnipresence of the all seeing eye, “Big Brother”. The world of Oceania that Orwell imagined contrasted heavily with Huxley’s vision, whereby in “1984” it was mass censorship and restriction of information through manipulation of the media (rather than an overload of trivial information) that kept the masses in ignorance, while inconvenient facts or undesirable persons or incidents were deliberately suppressed through alteration of the historical record, by disappearing facts down the “memory hole” to conceal inconvenient truths. Government control in Orwell’s society was further assisted and maintained by a network of informants, through the propagation of perpetual warfare, by inflicting pain and fear to dissidents and undesirables through torture (Room 101), and by the spectre of enemies of the state or false flag conflicts (Goldstein, Eurasia and, by turns, Eastasia). One of the key distinguishing features of this society was that language was completely corrupted to distort the true meaning in communicating ideas between people, with “Newspeak” often juxtaposing contradictory ideas with the aim of producing confusion and promoting ignorance and ultimately obedience.
Orwell’s world was therefore a dark, dank and decaying one of crumbling infrastructure, except perhaps for that enjoyed by the very elites of the inner circle of “The Party” (though their existence was similarly oppressive, albeit self-imposed), with the mass of humanity toiling in a joyless, loveless existence under the jackboot of oppression and fear, where every thought could be used against them, particularly if one is unfortunate enough to be accused of a “thought crime”, often arbitrarily, by the State. The large screen two-way televisions and listening devices monitoring the populace, and which were present in each and every home and public place, were the only progressive technology of note that rose above the dreary and the mundane of Orwell’s post-WW2 British milieu, which stands in stark contrast to Huxley’s gleaming, futuristic and technologically advanced, yet also entirely soulless society.
While each author developed a distinct and often somewhat contrasting potential scenario for humankind’s descent into a dystopian nightmare, it is apparent that each vision has certain aspects and qualities that are readily recognisable as being present within our current modern “Western” society, with each prediction in some ways being somewhat complimentary to the other, or perhaps more accurately representing sequential stages in a continuum, where the concepts and themes of one flow seamlessly into the other toward the same ultimate end. Unfortunately, it would appear increasingly that some of those currently in power in the early 21st Century seem intent on using these scenarios as outlined by Aldous Huxley and George Orwell in their respective novels as a template for our future, rather than as a timely warning to be heeded and thus avoided.
Therefore, while it would appear to superficial analysis that Aldous Huxley has more accurately portrayed the pitfalls of “modern” society as we currently experience it, one cannot help but recognise the spectre of Orwell’s equally devastating prophesy which looms ever larger with each passing decade and may, indeed, prevail as the default setting in which our society will eventually languish. Perhaps ultimately each vision merely reflects the fundamental (and possibly inevitable) limitations in our human cognitive abilities, that serve to curtail our individual and collective endeavours, and thereby ultimately terminate our aspirations to the establishment of a truly egalitarian and progressive society.