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Thursday June 20, 2024

The world of Huxley

By Muhammad Abdul Basit
October 08, 2022

When Eric Arthur Blair (better known by his pen name George Orwell) sent his novel ‘1984’ to Aldous Huxley – his French teacher and mentor – for a review, Orwell was remarked of a plausible flaw in his judgement of what a future world would look like.

For Huxley, it would not be coercion, as Orwell had argued, but psychological and social conditioning that would matter in making people submit to higher authorities. Both Orwell and Huxley had a unique conception of a future dystopian world. While Orwell argued the future is marked by the rule of force, excessive censorship, continuous surveillance and rule by an iron fist, Huxley envisioned a world in which people would be absolutely docile, emotionally meek and overdosed with happiness all the time. Autocrats would not need to use force; rather people would be happy in their submission to the commands.

Huxley originally wrote his dystopian fiction in 1932 and his imagined world was 600 years in the future. However, the speed with which science and technology flourished compelled him to reduce the time frame to 200 years in the future – just 25 years after writing the masterpiece. But it appears the time frame might shorten even more now. Look around and observe the mediocrity present already everywhere. According to Huxley, humans would be dehumanized and subordinated to their own inventions. Technological innovations are making life much more comfortable, but instead of raising the intellectual level of the people, they are proving to act as a trap to keep them passive and distracted.

Is innovation leading to a mental upgrowth of human society or is it being used as a pawn by authoritarian leaders to keep the people mentally malnourished to keep things in order? This is a question worth probing. ‘Follow the rules, play the game, be happy’ – this is the message for the people from the higher command in Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’. While ‘Big Brother’ in Orwell’s dystopia keeps a keen eye on the people, Huxley's fiction requires little use of force to keep society in order. Social conditioning helps the state ‘manufacture’ a population that is nothing but workable beasts, deprived of emotions and unable to stand in others' feet to comprehend their lived experiences.

In the novel, people are deprived of their emotions, and their happiness comes from someone else's structuring of their lives. Their ages remain young for a lifetime, and so do their thinking capabilities which are equivalent to a teenager. In the words of the author, Brave New World depicts a society in which man has replaced nature by science, morality by drugs and individuality by total conformity. For totalitarianism to function smoothly, it needs a sizable population that is shallow in knowledge, psychologically empty, proud of their amateurish thoughts, paranoid of external influence, and throttles any voice that goes against the acceptable norms of society.

In Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’, at a young age in the hatcheries, babies are shown books and flowers and are given mild electric shocks if they try touching them – so as to warn them of how harmful they can be. Repeating the process over and over again, these are associated with unpleasant memories in their minds and the children are made to hate and stay away from them forever.

After all, it is a happier society; there is no time for thinking and no need for self-awareness. Relate this with the present situation of Pakistan and there will not be much of a difference. Seventy-five per cent of the people have never read a book other than textbooks. And those who do: the quality of the material being read is a completely different debate. The result is intellectual stagnation. Book writers are old fashioned: content creators are the new kings and queens. No wonder the sort of content most people absorb from social media in Pakistan is generally substandard, meaningless and devoid of any intellectual depth. Social media platforms reward quantity of followers and watch-time over quality. Often, a new user gets trapped in mediocrity as they are shown content that is prevailing. It seems mediocre things are more attractive.

The beauty of dystopian fiction is that many things that are supposed to remain fiction can come true in a slightly different setting. Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ seems to be right here at the doorstep. Voltaire’s quote “Every person is a creature of the age in which they live, and few are able to raise themselves above the ideas of the time” suits Huxley’s imagination of a future’s dystopian reality.

In many cases, social media is doing the job of drugs to keep people happy, living in their own fantasies. All that is required is just to live in a bubble, follow and interact with the people who have a similar thought pattern as you, cancel anyone deviating from the ‘holy’ or ‘civilized’ path and keep gaining positive energy. After all, life is meant to be happy – not meaningful. Isn’t it?

The writer is a political scientist with a focus on international relations and sociopolitical issues. He can be reached at: abdulbasit0419@gmail.com