Aldous Huxley's satirical novel "Brave New World" may be truer to reality than any of us would like to believe.
- Historian Michael Bess worries that Aldous Huxley's most famous novel "Brave New World" may be one of the most accurate sci-fi visions of our future.
- In the 1930s-era book, people are bio-engineered, raised in artificial wombs, sorted into castes, and take emotion-altering drugs.
- Bess argues the trajectory of today's drugs, prosthetics, and genetic engineering may lead to a dystopian future if left unchecked.
WEST LAFAYETTE, IND. — It's science fiction's job to entertain us, not sooth-say. Yet even older, tongue-in-cheek sci-fi works have predicted numerous technologies we now take for granted.
If there's one book or movie that best foretells what humanity could become, though, it's Aldous Huxley's 1932 novel, "Brave New World," according to Michael Bess, a historian and author at Vanderbilt University.
Addressing an audience at Purdue University's annual "Dawn or Doom" conference, Bess pointed out how sci-fi movies like "Star Wars" and "Star Trek" show off radically evolved technologies — yet humans "stay fundamentally the same."
"This is what I call The Jetsons fallacy," Bess said. The name refers to the 1960s cartoon, The Jetsons, which places people into a dramatically different technological future, yet without altering the people themselves.
In Bess' latest book, "Our Grandchildren Redesigned: Life in the Bioengineered Society of the Near Future," he explores the possible — and frightening — trajectories of pharmaceutical drugs, prosthetics, genetics, and other bodily enhancements being adopted today.
"Now in these films, it's true: We do encounter humans who undergo profound biological, bioelectronic transformations. But it's always under the same conditions," he said. "Whether it's accidental or deliberate, the modification is uniquely confined to a single individual. It never applies to the surrounding population."
Huxley's "Brave New World", however, stands out as "the single-most important exception" in all of science fiction, Bess said, since the book could reflect humanity's state within the next 75 to 100 years.
'Brave New World', 85 years later
Huxley originally intended the book to satirize the early-1900s utopian visions of writers like H.G. Wells with an extreme dystopian vision of the future. But Huxley reportedly ran away with the concept once he started writing.
His story takes place in the year 2540, when children are engineered in artificial wombs, born in hatcheries, raised in indoctrination programs, and sorted into castes based on their intelligence and physical abilities. Most adults, meanwhile, dope up on a mind-soothing drug called soma. Those who reject these practices are exiled to "savage reservations" in Iceland, the Falkland Islands, New Mexico, and other remote, resource-poor locations (which are closely monitored by the World State government).
"Eight decades have passed since its publication, and it's still the only systematic effort to imagine the world populated by engineered humans," Bess said.
He added that most popular sci-fi books, movies, and shows are "supposed to beguile us, not freak us out." But that's not the case with Huxley's novel.
"The technological modification of entire populations of humans is not a fitting subject for mass entertainment because it's simply too disturbing to contemplate," Bess said. "Many people in today's society are living in a state of denial, psychologically unprepared for what is actually far more likely to become the case."
People are already modifying themselves, and increasingly so, with ever-more-capable technologies: Individuals are controlling their emotions and cognition with prescription drugs; the blind are seeing and the paraplegic are walking with prosthetics; and previously incurable diseases are on on the cusp of being treated with new gene-editing techniques.
Yet some of these transformative technologies, Bess argues, are now slipping beyond medical boundaries and becoming more widely used by healthy people, both to experiment with and rely on.
"Biotechnology is giving us the capability not just to change our world, as we did in the industrial revolution of the early 1800s, but to change ourselves — to manipulate and redesign our own bodies and minds," he said.
People as products?
What Bess and others who think like him fear is a "creeping commodification" of people.
By this he means an incremental yet perhaps irreversible focus on upgrades, enhancements, and alterations to ourselves. Over time, the thinking goes, this erodes individuality to the point that people may be treated as product-like commodities — not unlike how we talk about cars today, Bess explained.
One major potential consequence of that shift: The rich may be able to afford personal enhancements that the poor or disenfranchised can't, deepening already stark divisions and disparities related to jobs, justice, healthcare, housing, education, food, and more.
Looking around, Bess fears there are already clear signs that Huxley's future is arriving.
He retold an anecdote from a student who toured a Wall Street firm as an intern candidate. The tour guide noted the crushing 70- to 80-hour work weeks, then said, to cope, workers pick a favorite cognition-enhancing drug, such as memantine, methylphenidate, or modafinil.
"If you're not using cognitive enhancers, you're not welcome here," the tour guide allegedly said, with an eerie resemblance to Huxley's soma-infused world.
Bess also warned that bio-enhancing technologies are seeing rapid adoption with little to no larger discussion about their long-term risk, let alone regulation — cognitive enhancers and the inequality they drive being one example.
And he lamented the loss of governmental organizations like the Office of Technology Assessment, which used to assess technological and scientific developments and drafted authoritative reports for lawmakers. There should also be, he said, a global and ongoing discussion about altering the foundations of what make us human — and where to draw red lines.
Bess acknowledged that his wife often refers to him as a professional Chicken Little. But that hasn't changed his conviction that we need to pump the brakes before it's too late.
"If the world goes like this, it's not going to be fixable," he said.
Disclosure: The author of this post was also a speaker at the "Dawn or Doom" conference.