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.


Source: DroneReview

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



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§ 3 Responses to Indifferent New Technology, Same Old World

  • elizabeth1315 says:

    I love the parallels you drew between the systems at play in the novel and Vanderbilt’s culture. There’s no question that a large number of students at Vanderbilt, although not all, are from families with an income far above the national median and that many of these students had previous experiences and opportunities that helped to prepare them for Vanderbilt. It certainly mirrors the cast system when you think about the financial means and knowledge typically needed to make it to a top-tier university.

    Similarly, you mentioned that you would argue that their technological advances compliment their own instincts. Given this and the similarities between their world and ours, how can we develop our own technology in a way that does not replicate such a system? In our modern world, one could argue that technological advancement is a privileged endeavor; it costs money and it costs time, both of which are hard to come by in less developed areas of the world. When focusing in only on America, does our technology reinforce the class issues we face, grooming certain students for Vanderbilt, while grooming others for a life of poverty? As technology advances, society will need to be more and more careful about its uses and the ethics that come along with it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Alison Maas says:

      I think both of you raise interesting points about the privilege of technology. As we have talked about in previous classes, technology allows for an access to a wealth of information, which in some cases translates to knowledge. So, one wonders (and you seem to have hit the nail on the head) how technology contributes to the stratification of social structures. As we have seen recently, the distribution of computers to rural areas has become a means of “community service.” It seems that we acknowledge that access to technology might allow for a greater advantage for those who can afford it, just as access to prep materials allows for a greater advantage in testing scores and subsequently often admittance into prestigious universities. So, one is left questioning, how do we bridge the gap that technology might enforce? Does distribution of computers truly work? Or, do tech companies have a duty to make affordable technologies?

      Liked by 1 person

  • maplesmm says:

    The society depicted in Huxley’s novel is one controlled by entertainment, and one Neil Postman comments on in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death. This work comments on entertainment as the unescapable backbone of our society, with objectively non-entertaining events, like news broadcasts and religious services, more resembling comedy shows in order to attract viewers/patrons.
    Adapting the adage “the medium is the message,” Postman argues that “the medium is the metaphor,” and that, as our media is overwhelmingly dominated by television (seen by him as a lesser medium requiring little involvement) such will our society’s collective intelligence dwindle. Couple that with the staggering statistic mentioned above about the average 15.5 hours of media per person per day, and it begins to get frightening.

    Liked by 1 person

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