Inasmuch as there are canonical texts of American education, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is one of them. But students may wonder why their teacher presents as “dystopian” a text that reads, in 2020, like an operating manual for the technocratic American Dream. The taming of reproduction and heredity by science; the banishment of boredom, discomfort, and sorrow by entertainment and pharmacology; the omnipresent availability of attachment-free sex; the defeat of death, sort of, by blissed-out euthanasia: Huxley foresaw not our fears but some of our deepest aspirations.
To read and teach Brave New World as dystopia is at best an oblivious atavism, at worst a piece of deluded self-flattery. As a character (not even an especially bright one) observes in Michel Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles (1998), “Everyone says Brave New World is supposed to be a totalitarian nightmare, a vicious indictment of society, but that’s hypocritical bullshit.” The only thing Huxley got wrong, the character adds, is society’s acceptance of genetic caste stratification. In reality, we expect “advances in automation and robotics” to render such attine division of labor as obsolete as the sundial, the cotton gin, and the dot matrix printer.
It’s easy to look back at Huxley’s novel and attribute the radiant, meaningless future toward which it so fearfully looked as the realization of the dreams of scientists — including Huxley’s own brother, the eugenicist Julian Huxley — with their Promethean curiosity and procrustean “solutions.” But Huxley fretted about the machinations of industry as much as he did about scientists: Brave New World is peppered with the surnames of Henry Ford, Sir Alfred Mond, and Maurice Bokanowski. Huxley seemed convinced that when the last irregularity was removed from the human condition, and the last inconvenience stripped from the human experience, it would be scientists’ and industrialists’ hands wielding the plane. But where the scientists pursue knowledge for its own sake, or in service of the good as they see it, the tech titans pursue it the better to sell us what we want. How well the would-be Aldous Huxleys of our day understand that — and how much blame they place on us and our appetites — is the subject of this essay.
Since you’re already thinking about our dystopian future, why not think about me thinking about our dystopian future? Special bonus audio track! https://t.co/sDTbtEsvYV
— Stefan Beck (@stefanmbeck) March 12, 2020