Indifferent New Technology, Same Old World
March 22, 2017 § 3 Comments
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is, according to Wikipedia, a novel that “anticipates developments in reproductive technology, sleep-learning, psychological manipulation, and classical conditioning that combine profoundly to change society.” The book is often interpreted as a cautionary tale, decrying the dangers of unfettered embrace of new technologies. Though the technologies in the novel are used to maintain a shockingly stratified social system and to perpetually distract citizenry through elaborate entertainment, non-sentient technologies are essentially neutral to the way in which they are used. Technologies are tools, and tools do not dictate their own usage. While some tools intrinsically lend themselves to nefarious uses more than others, this is ultimately a question of correlation versus causation – whether the post-Ford society’s practices are due to their technologies or whether their advanced technologies and base instincts merely complement each other.
I’d argue for the latter.
The Caste System. Constantly proposed, constantly rejected. There was something called democracy.
The post-Ford society in the novel is strictly divided into a hierarchy of social castes, including Alphas, Betas, Deltas, Gammas, and Epsilons. Each of these castes, separated by birth, serve a rigid social role and receive varying levels of oxygen and exposure to alcohol during development, either enhancing or limiting their respective intelligences. While horrifying to enact with such efficiency, caste systems are not new for humanity. Medieval Europe was dominated by the feudal system, with stark divisions between the land-owning vassals and the subservient serfs. Rome’s social structure included patricians, plebeians, freedmen, and slaves. The remnants of India’s caste system of brahmins (priests), khsatriyas (warriors), vaishyas (merchants), shudras (servants), and untouchables, still drastically impact the nation’s politics and economics. The common requirement for entry into the upper castes in each of these civilizations? You had to be born into them?
Such stratification is neither an exclusively ancient or international problem, and castes and democracy are not necessarily antithetical, as presented in the novel. Our own nation’s social and economic structure was, for much of our history, built on the idea that entire groups of people, including Chinese-Americans, Irish-Americans, and especially African-Americans, were meant to serve subservient, less-than roles.
You should see the way a negro ovary responds to pituitary!
Additionally, in Brave New World, social order is dependent on the maintaining of a large, unintelligent working class, devoid of opportunity for advancement from birth. Robbing fetuses of oxygen is a direct way to limit intelligence and social mobility, but does disparate access to nutrition, birth control, and education not achieve a similar result? Do our own environments not condition and shape us for the work we ultimately end up performing?
Again, these are not merely problems consigned to a tech-obsessed world. In our own world, resistance to technology may, to some extent, contribute to the maintaining of such stark divides between classes. As I have previously argued, a partial solution to Fordism may be the replacement of dehumanizing human jobs with machine workers, eliminating the need for humans to serve as cog in the industrial machine. However, without educational opportunities, the elimination of such positions could leave man without options. Breaking a cycle of poverty is an uphill climb, one which may take generations to truly surmount.
I’m glad I’m not an Epsilon.
As students at one of the highest-ranked universities in the nation, we stand on the lucky side of societal divides. According to a recent New York Times article, the median household for Vanderbilt students was $204,500, placing a full half of our student body in at least the top 5.6% of household incomes nationally. This trend is by no means exclusive to Vanderbilt, and similar levels of wealth can be seen at most “top-tier” institutions, which is not exactly surprising. Wealthier families are more likely to be able to live in school districts with higher taxes, invest the time and money needed for their children to pursue extracurricular activities, and free their children from the limiting worries of whether they’ll have enough to eat or a place to sleep. Beyond these factors, many top schools cost in excess of $60,000 a year to attend, presenting a cost barrier for those ineligible for financial aid, a knowledge barrier for many who are unsure of how to take advantage of the financial aid system, or an access barrier for those whose previous opportunities do not align with the sought-after qualities for admission.
Nothing like oxygen-shortage for keeping an embryo below par.
Within the university setting, this social stratification manifests itself yet further. Huxley’s characters are divided into groups of various levels of power and social status, assigned letters of the Greek alphabet. As a student, it’s hard to not draw parallels to Vanderbilt. On campus, many activities considered to be prestigious have high entry costs, including club sports, service trips, Maymesters, and Greek life. In such organizations, students are filtered by what is, ultimately, a few impressions, and further self-filtered by their ability to pay.
Hasn’t it occurred to you that an Epsilon embryo must have an Epsilon environment as well as an Epsilon heredity?
According to a 2017 Vanderbilt Political Review article, “Greek students dominate all three upper-income categories…conversely, non-Greek students held a greater share of all four lower-income levels.”
Source: Vanderbilt Political Review
While efforts have been made to increase access to Vanderbilt social groups with high entrance costs, there is still a significant divide. Is Huxley’s vision of social stratification with different tiers of people assigned different Greek letters totally unfathomable? Data would indicate that even in an already massively stratified educational institution, we self-stratify in a similar manner. And proudly so. We even buy t-shirts to tell others about it.
However, the seemingly insurmountable systematic injustices in Brave New World raise some glaring questions. Why are people content? Why do they not revolt?
Every man, woman, and child compelled to consume so much a year.
In Huxley’s novel, characters are distracted and numbed by entertainment. They play complicated games requiring elaborate equipment, such as obstacle golf, escalator squash, and centrifugal bumblepuppy.
Two words: drone racing.
Games, like all human systems, have become more complex as time goes on. Huxley anticipated that this trend would continue into the future. In our case, we’re competitively racing flying robots through video monitors. Huxley’s vision did not, however, account for the meteoric rise of a paradigm-shifting technology: digital media.
According to the 2015 “How much media?” report by the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, Americans are estimated to consume a staggering average 15.5 hours of media per person per day. But though we consume vastly more media than our predecessors, we’re not necessarily better informed. In his book The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart, author Bill Bishop argues access to such a wealth of information enhances our natural tendency towards confirmation bias on a historically unparalleled scale. If we so choose, we can view only sources that support the beliefs we already possess. We can isolate ourselves from opposing viewpoints, disengage from debate, distract ourselves from substance.
But how can we stay away? We have so many media access points: TV, advanced computers, gaming systems, phones able to access a nearly unlimited wealth of entertainment. We have no reason to not be constantly entertained everywhere we are, should we desire it. For example, Nintendo’s new Switch gaming console can be played through a TV, a computer, or through a built-in screen allowing individual or group play on the go.
Nowadays the Controllers won’t approve of any new game unless it can be shown that it requires at least as much apparatus as the most complicated of existing games.
Strict social structures, clear stratifications, distracted consumers — is Huxley’s truly a brave new world?
Maybe, if history is bunk.
Author: Austin Channell