If you ask 100 people to name a book about a modern dystopian society, 100 of them would probably talk about 1984, the George Orwell novel about centralized government dominating a nation so much that “Big Brother is Watching You”.
Those folks are sheeple. The book that really reveals our modern century dystopia far better is by a near-contemporary and predecessor of Orwell named Aldous Huxley: Brave New World.
Although the books deal with the degradation of the individual, they come at it from different approaches and different causes. Let me let Neil Postman handle this bit:
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions." In 1984, Postman added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.
The Roman Empire collapsed amidst bread and circuses, while the monarchy bled the nation dry. Distract the people, the thinking goes, and you can pick their pockets at will.
This was not the message of 1984, to be sure. Orwell had a distinctly unfun society to place his story in. Huxley’s book predicts the Kardashians. Orwell posits a centralized authority figure ruling and micromanaging the very sex lives of its citizenry, and while many of the trappings of his society are pretty apparent in the modern West, he discounts the ability of private enterprise to lay behind this totalitarian form of government, or rather, opts to ignore it as it would have given comfort to the very society he was trying to mock, the Soviet Socialist republics.
One must not criticize capitalism if one is to attack its chief rival.
Huxley writes from a different and more valid place: his dislike of American society just after the turn of the 20th Century. He incorporates wide-spread happy pills (like Prozac), wide-spread licentiousness (OK, here he was very wrong morally but not wrong observationally), and emerging eugenics (like genetic counseling. And worse.)
It’s no coincidence that Huxley sets his piece in the year 632 AF—“After Ford” – after reading Henry Ford’s seminal book My Life and Work and seeing its principles in place across America: a faster-paced lifestyle with entertaining diversions, an orientation towards youth and the loss of individual identity from the workplace factory lines to the nameless faceless mobs of the cities.
Yes, that’s right: you were once one of those “kids these days” no matter how old you are.
In Huxley’s world, we are each from birth inculcated with the command to consume, that money has value only for what it buys, and that you should know your place and do your job while those who employ you are free to move about as they see fit, even if that means taking your job away from you and giving it to someone else.
I’m re-reading this book now, and I get the eerie sensation that the reason 1984 is dropped into the national dialogue so often is not that it’s a valid comparison, except superficially, to modern day America, but that this distracts us from reading a really predictive look at America.