Fifty-five years ago, on this day in 1963, Aldous Huxley passed through a psychedelic portal to the other side. His death was overshadowed by the assassination of JFK on the same day, but the legacy of his most popular novel, Brave New World, lives on.
Even fifty-five years after his death, Aldous Huxley’s best-known work, the satirical dystopian novel, Brave New World, has a message which resonates. It was published in 1932, a tumultuous epoch between two world wars, when totalitarian ideologies gripped the world’s nation states and intellectual elite. The idea of utopia didn’t seem too farfetched for many living in his time. However, from our historical perspective, it may seem absurdly earnest to strive for utopia because we know how those 20th century experiments turned out. Into this void has stepped a new pretender to the utopian throne, led by technocrats from Silicon Valley.
The genius of Huxley’s book, a satire, one has to remember, was that it was able to distance itself from the elixir so many were partaking in at the time: the optimism that a platonic ideal of a perfect world state was possible; the erroneous belief that if only the right strong man or doctrine came along, all of our problems would be solved. Huxley could easily have published Brave New World today, with some minor updates, and it would be just as relevant — for we’re now guided by visions of a tech utopia.
The World State of Huxley’s novel is a place of oppression masked by unending leisure and hedonistic excess. It’s a place where genetically modified humans perfectly fill out a caste system, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Just the right amount of Alpha Pluses (the directors and CEO’s of society), down to the Epsilon Semi-Morons (the lowliest laborers). From an early age they’ve been conditioned to conform, and even the most intellectually and physically adept members of society are taught, through psychological conditioning, to reject inquiry. The book’s title, an ironic reference to The Tempest, serves as a clue. In this society, works by Shakespeare and others who explore the tragicomedy of human nature, are forbidden. Everybody in this dystopia lives in a haze of Soma, a liberally dosed narcotic which leaves people in a blissed out state‚ not unlike the vast arrays of SSRI’s which have been dulling our emotions for the last few decades. It’s a world without consequences, reminiscent of video games.
Lenina, in many ways the most tragic figure of Brave New World, is addicted to the shallow happiness of her life, a permanent Soma vacation of Tinder-like hookups, games and the rote duties of her Alpha status. Like each of the main characters, there’s a niggling doubt about the authenticity of her life, barely articulated in the furthest recesses of her mind. This bothersome doubt is aroused by another Alpha member, Bernard Marx. As the novel’s main character for the first half of the story, he’s the audience surrogate. A deficient Alpha Plus, shorter than average, he’s the butt of jokes about a mistake in the laboratory which stunted his growth (possibly contributing to his odd idealism of “love” — which is a dirty word in the World State). Lenina is both attracted and repelled by him, and follows him on a voyeuristic disaster tour of Malpais, a “savage” Indian reservation in New Mexico — a scene that could have easily served as an episode of David Farrier’s Netflix series, Dark Tourist. There they meet John, the bastard son of an official back home, who illicitly impregnated an Alpha Plus woman twenty years earlier, and left her to die on the reservation. Bernard, who’s been having trouble with this same official because of his nonconformity, decides to bring John “the Savage” back home and use him as a bargaining chip to keep his status. It’s at this point in the book where Bernard’s character, seduced by his new-found fame as the savage’s handler, drinks the kool-aid of this techno utopia, and embraces the advantages of his rockstar status. He casts Lenina aside and swallows Soma with abandon, and — if he were using anything like Tinder — starts matching with more women than he ever has before. Like a tech bro on the heels of a hot IPO, he’s the “it boy” of the moment, and his low self-esteem is a distant memory.
Perhaps Bernard isn’t really the true audience surrogate for many of us reading this. I found a disturbing affinity for his best friend Helmholtz Watson, another Alpha Plus, who doesn’t have a chip on his shoulder about his physical appearance, but is disillusioned about his job, and his role writing the “hypnopaedic slogans” which the World State uses to psychologically condition all members of society. He feels anguish and guilt for using his writing talent in this way. In the world that Huxley envisions, poetry that doesn’t sell is prohibited. One can’t help but think of the aesthetics of our day, where the market value of a piece of content is what determines its aesthetic worth. The Hollywood industrial complex. The state of the publishing industry. The ranking algorithms on Amazon. Helmholtz, along with Bernard — who ultimately gets ostracized from the elites after he fails to reign in his “savage” — is finally banished to barren Iceland by the book’s big bad, Mustapha Mond, the leader of the hyper-capitalistic World State.
The book’s theme of corporate tyranny resonates more than ever with each daily news cycle. The promised tech utopia of four-hour work weeks and endless leisure isn’t all it was cracked up to be. Or maybe we didn’t fully understand the implications of things like programmatic ad technology — the backbone of the “free” internet — which tranches us into data points for the benefit of advertisers and political propagandists. The new ideal, projected by the tech utopianists, has led us to believe that everybody can be a star. Influencers abound: “doin’ it for the ‘gram” is normalized, and a salient few are getting uber-wealthy by doing stupid things on Youtube, Instagram and Twitter. They live apparent lives of leisure in sunkissed luxury resorts, playing video games and pranking each other on the global stage. All fun and games, monetized by the ad revenue Facebook and Google are pumping at them, their view counts and “Likes” electroshocking them into absurd patterns of behavior.
We’re still riding the high promised to us by the advent of social media. The ad revenue is still flowing in for anybody audacious enough to dream the social media influencer dream. Teenagers in poor eastern European countries are living the American dream by creating clickbait farms that pump out fake news on Facebook and Twitter. For aspiring influencers, a life of drugged-out leisure, comped meals and material excess seems to be just within reach. Just do it! — like in the viral Shia Labeouf meme of last year. But, like the current bull market, things will inevitably crash. Facebook is losing members; people are waking up to the inherent corruptibility of the “free” internet’s advertising model. People are fetishizing “dumb” phones that are free from social media. These are, perhaps, the Bernard, Lenina and Helmholtz’s of this reality-based version of Brave New World. There’s a niggling doubt. They’re getting ready to cope with the inevitable crash of this model. I’m one of them, sitting here in California, on my own cannabis holiday, a few miles away from Silicon Beach, waiting for the arrival of a savage to trigger the exodus that upends it all.