Aldous Huxley, the distraction epidemic, and the social cost of technological innovation

How technology is creating a more closed-off world

Photograph: 'Aldous Huxley painted portrait' / Thierry Ehrmann
Photograph: 'Aldous Huxley painted portrait' / Thierry Ehrmann

The word ‘Orwellian’ gets brandished a lot these days. Almost everyone knows its meaning: surveillance, control by fear, intrusion into everyday life and worship of some central figurehead. Orwell wrote 1984 in part as a way of looking at the way the USSR was arranged, so I often wonder if he would be happy with the application of his ideas in today’s world. People use his ideas loosely, forgetting that if they lived in the kind of world that Orwell had conveyed, they would not have had the freedom to even think about bad-mouthing the state.

I’ve always been more of a Huxley man myself. 1984’s message that the things we hate will destroy us was powerful and Orwell’s incisive writing style lent itself to the bleak world he created. However, it always struck me as a little obvious that totalitarianism was ‘’bad’’.

Huxley’s depiction of the world in which people were glad of their shackles; were not merely innocent bystanders but active participants in the system that dominated them, always seemed more elegant to me. In Brave New World, society is kept in check through tech innovations and mind-altering drugs. A slew of activities are in place designed to impose pleasure on the population. People are so enmeshed in thrill-seeking that almost none of them ever question the way their world is governed.

So the big distinction is this: Orwell saw a future in which freedom was taken from the individual; Huxley envisioned a society in which freedom was readily given up.

Orwell’s was a subjugation of the body; Huxley’s an abdication of the soul.

Can there be any doubt as to which writer has been more prescient when looking at the West today?

The gravamen of Huxley’s argument, that man possesses ‘’Almost infinite appetite for distractions’’, seems eerily prophetic as the digital age flourishes.

Technology has made it easier than ever to start a relationship with someone. Still, tech is too often replacing intimacy as the guarantor of a sustainable relationship.

Texts; messages; video calls; phone calls. Every emotional dimension of a relationship can be maintained through technology.

Couples can see one another, read each other’s moods through the subtle intonations of the voice, and speak.All  this without ever being in the same room, city, or even country . Even needs of a more lewd nature can be alleviated by visiting the appropriate websites!

A few decades ago this would have been unthinkable. If a couple wanted to enjoy one another’s company, they would have to seek one another out, in the flesh. Other duties might prevent them from visiting one another for some number of days. For millions of people nowadays, it is impossible to avoid speaking to one’s spouse.

What does it mean to ‘’miss’’ someone if you can engage with them every day? Not much.

Meanwhile, easy access to pornography is diminishing the value of relationships. There is evidence that frequent pornography damages the area of the brain that deals with motivation and reward. This can greatly impact on real-life intimacy, eroding the sense of contentment and affinity that is normally derived from being committed to someone you care about.

Moreover, young people in 2015 were spending 3 times as much time on the internet as their 2005 counterparts, clocking up more than 27 hours a week browsing the web. The advent of social media, YouTube, and click-bait sites guarantees procrastination.

This is in conjunction with the fact that people now spend more time with tech that they do sleeping according to one report.

Lack of sleep is linked to depression; technology is linked to lack of sleep. The blue light emitted by most of the electronic objects we use on a daily basis-phones, tablets, computers etc, suppresses the production of melatonin in the body. Melatonin is responsible for the regulation of our rest cycle, and an insufficient production of it can make it harder to fall asleep as well as harder to stay asleep.

According to Ofcom, 8 out of 10 of us keep our mobile phones by our bedside at night. A different study that asked 1000 Brits about sleeping habits found that 37% of those asked did not believe that they were getting enough sleep. This figure is larger than many other developed nations including the USA, Canada, France and China.

Depression among young people is on the rise. A government study showing a 10% increase over a decade in girls with anxiety and depression highlights that this is a real issue. Lack of sleep is only one of a number of reasons why someone may become depressed, but the fact that technology has a palpable impact on the mental wellbeing of people should not be overlooked. When it comes to mental health, even a tiny change could have a huge impact on someone’s life.

Tech also plays an increasingly large role in politics. Would Donald Trump have won the Presidential Election without the help of the states from the ‘’Rust Belt’’? It seems unlikely. He struck a note with many by promising to bring jobs back to the USA. This is a promise that he will however be unable to keep. The Centre For Business and Economic Research found that 85% of the 5.6 million manufacturing jobs that the US lost between 2000 and 2010 were as a result of technological innovations rather than trade. Trump won’t be able to do much about that.

In the UK, a similar trend has emerged, with the chief economist at the Bank of England suggesting up to 15 million jobs could be at risk in the coming years as tech becomes advanced enough to replace human labour.

With the increase in the world populace, this is bad news. What will the consequences be when more people than ever are applying for fewer jobs than ever? Without some kind of safety net in place, such an outcome would surely inflict penury on millions of people.

The great promise of innovation has always been that machines would create a more prosperous world in which people would have freedom from work. Technology has instead swallowed up jobs and created manifold distractions from everyday life.

I too am distracted. This is the beauty of Huxley’s social theory: that I can acknowledge or be part of the problem without ever doing anything to tackle it.

I don’t want to overstate it: We’re not in some kind of zany dystopia just yet. But, already we can see something quite ugly beginning to form. We are drifting into a future where we sleep but do not rest; mistake pleasure for joy, and talk but don’t communicate. Instant gratification is becoming conflated with happiness.

And who is to blame? It’s all of us who buy into this stuff. Friends are not digital, love is not something you can get through a screen, there’s no meaning in the code.

This is why now, more than ever, the phrase ‘’Huxleyan’’ needs to be widely circulated, and its meaning feared.

 

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Daniel Hewett 6 Articles
I am fascinated by controversial and difficult topics. My articles try to be good-faith examinations of why any given idea can seem beautiful to one person and noxious to another. To this effect, I will always try my best to offer a fresh perspective and a balanced outlook.

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