Did Aldous get it right?

When Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World in 1931, he placed the story in “the year of our Ford” 632 A.F. (After Ford), i.e., the time span since the introduction of the Model T in 1908. This put it at 2540 on our calendar.

When Huxley wrote Brave New World Revisited, published in 1958, advances in technology had proceeded so fast it caused him to re-calibrated his predictions to transpire, not in 600 years, but within a mere 200 years, or around 2131. Had Huxley lived to 2014 (the extremely ripe old age of 120)–he may easily decide to shave off another century from his predictions, i.e. as soon as 2031.  But Brave New World is not simply a book about technology in the future. It is primarily a morality play based on a futuristic “dystopia”– a warning of what may befall humankind if technology ceases to serve human needs, and instead becomes our yoke and master.

While Huxley admits his dates could be at least 400 years off, did he get the rest right? Brave New World predicted the further development of many technologies that were on the bleeding edge of science in 1932, without the Internet to broadcast them to the remotest corner of the world via a TED talk. Included are in vitro fertilization, birth control, mindless leisure technology, mass consumption economics, extended youth (until terminated at 60) and helicopters, to name a few. That in itself is fairly impressive, but again, it’s not what makes the book.  Most concerning to Huxley is that humans remain “human” while progressing technologically. The latter is inevitable, Huxley seems to say, but the former depends greatly on humans specifically planning a humane future true to its human roots.

Huxley, of course, is begging the question, who defines what is human and what is humane? John “the Savage” rattles off a list of things he believes are vital for his humanity, including givens like freedom, poetry, goodness and even sin. But John also includes a few that Huxley knows would give us pause, such as “the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer, the right to have too little to eat”.

And what did Huxley get wrong? Are the technologies, so exotic in 1931, really inhuman, or even much different than the natural “human” processes they replaced? Do these technologies inevitably pull us in a inhuman direction, or is this simply paranoid “much ado about nothing,” as John might say? Will we really wax nostalgic for cancer one day any more than we for the bubonic plague today? Does curing all human ailments, fully stabilizing the economy, etc. really mean 99% of us will become mindless drones controlled by tomorrow’s One Percent? Did Huxley–possibly intentionally–not anticipate that robots would take over monotonous tasks he left for low-IQ Epsilons to slave in? Did he not expect that computers, rather than dull human brains, might give us the super-intelligence to journey literally beyond space and time? Huxley aside, do today’s much less erudite Cassandras and Jeremiahs really expect humanity in 2540 to still accept disease and death and still have an average IQ below the minimum for basic college work  in 2014 (I.Q. 105), just so our entertainment has plenty of colorful dysfunctional characters and our news filled with idiots deserving Darwin Awards?

Today, an adult who began life in a test tube is typically completely “normal,” proving the mechanics of birth are, at least on an individual basis, rather trivial. Changing those mechanics en masse for society, however, may have huge implications–positive, negative and neutral. Such social experiments and results are already occurring at an astounding rate, and are growing exponentially. As stated in the mission statement for Brave News World, “These unfolding issues portend nothing short of a mega-revolution and the death knell of old issues such as nationality, ethnicity, and religion which currently consume most of our political bandwidth.” It promises to be an interesting voyage.