As the modern world appears to be sliding inexorably toward the establishment of a global surveillance state, run at the behest of a crypto-fascist oligarchy, the incredibly prescient concepts and observations proposed by those renowned novelists Aldous Huxley and George Orwell ring ever more loudly in our collective ears, as harbingers of a dystopian future whose reality seemingly bears down upon us at frightening speed.
But, the question remains: Whose vision is the closest to the reality with which we are now faced, or are soon to be confronted by in the very near or even distant future?
At first glance, Huxley’s concept of a society drowning in a sea of irrelevant information, and preoccupied with or distracted by trivia seems the more grounded in the reality of daily life in our contemporary Western societies, in 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”), unduly fascinated with the trappings of celebrity (Hollywood stars, European royalty, the rich and famous, and gossip magazines, etc.) and comprehensively fixated with superficial appearances (Facebook and Instagram, cosmetic surgery, obsessive fitness regimes, fad diets).
More troubling, perhaps, is that this aimless narcissism is associated with a conscious and near complete rejection of the importance of deductive reasoning, objective scientific knowledge and an impartial view of historical facts by a significant majority of the adult population.
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 not just for our own self interest, but also for the interests of our loved ones and those who will descend from us.
This institutionalised ignorance has been cynically coupled with the systematic conquest of the sovereignty of the individual by the state, through a rejection of self-reliant cognitive strategies and logical analysis in favour of a default to collectivist group-think and a deference to perceived authority and an uncritical conformity to perceived politically correct societal norms and expectations.
Huxley foresaw that governments and the so called “powers that be” would increasingly seek to exploit the apparently unquenchable thirst of the people for the pursuit of aimless and mindless diversions to entertain them, the latter day equivalent mechanism of control 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 to the exclusion of more intellectual pursuits ultimately overwhelms our capacity to accurately prioritise information in order of relevance and importance, and diminishes our desire for knowledge and understanding leading to a society marred by passivity, egocentrism and hedonism.
This “Brave New World” is conceived by Aldous Huxley as a totalitarian technocracy, which is characterised by rigid and clearly demarcated social stratification, with 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 absent and life-long relationships non-existent.
Personal freedoms are therefore sacrificed for safety and the pleasure principle, reinforced by the use of drugs (“Soma”), “feelies” and by unconstrained sexual gratification without emotional context. Science is thus used by a ruthless and faceless government as the ultimate weapon to subvert the individual’s desire for self-determination, as well as a tool for structuring social hierarchy through targeted 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 at least, come to pass in our modern day Western society as we currently experience it on entering the 21st Century.
George Orwell, on the other hand, imagined a more overtly scarifying 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 known as “Big Brother”.
The world of Oceania that Orwell imagined contrasted heavily with Huxley’s vision, whereupon it was through the misuse of mass censorship and the restriction of information through manipulation of the media (rather than an overload of trivial information in Huxley’s vision) that kept the masses in ignorance, while inconvenient facts or undesirable persons or incidents were deliberately suppressed through the systematic alteration of the historical record, 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 a perpetual state of warfare, by inflicting pain and fear to dissidents and undesirables through torture (Room 101), and by raising the spectre of emblematic enemies of the state and orchestrating false flag conflicts (Goldstein, Eurasia and, by turns, Eastasia).
One of the key distinguishing features of this society was that the language was completely corrupted to distort its true meaning in communicating ideas between people, with the language of “Newspeak” often juxtaposing contradictory ideas with the aim of producing confusion and promoting ignorance in the minds of the populace, and ultimately ensuring their continued obedience.
Orwell’s world in “1984” was also seen to be 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 seems to have been similarly oppressive, if 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 space, were the only progressive technology of note that rose above the dreary and the mundane of Orwell’s own 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 superficially contrasting potential scenario for humankind’s descent into a dystopian nightmare, it is apparent that each vision has certain aspects that are readily recognisable as being present to some degree within many of our modern societies, with each prediction in some ways being complimentary to one another, or perhaps more accurately representing sequential stages in a continuum, where the concepts and themes of one might 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 perhaps 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 seems to loom ever larger with each passing decade and may, indeed, prevail as the default setting in which our “freedom loving” Western societies will eventually languish.
Perhaps ultimately each vision merely reflects the fundamental (and possibly inevitable) limitations in the cognitive abilities of humankind, which serve to curtail our individual and collective endeavours, and thereby ultimately consign our aspirations for the establishment of a truly egalitarian and progressive global society to the “memory hole” of lost opportunities.