The Brave New World Test
Human history has had plenty of upheavals, but I believe we have never experienced such a rapid rate of technological and cultural change with worldwide reach. In 1931 Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World not so much as a reliable prognosis of human development over the coming 6 centuries (as the story is set in the year 2540 AD), but as a warning of how our socially progressive trajectory could lead us to a dystopia of complete submission to a technocratic elite. Huxley failed to foresee the likely implications of artificial intelligence and nano-robotics. He had mistakenly assumed the underclasses, represented by deltas and epsilons, would have a role to play in the production process. Yet as I write Chinese industries are busy automating their manufacturing facilities despite the widespread availability of cheap labour. In Huxley’s day geneticists had yet to discover DNA or understand the mechanics of bio-engineering and cloning, yet he had in my view correctly identified a direction of travel, that would only be temporarily set back by the rise of national autocracies, another world war and an uneasy transition from Western colonialism to national independence in the developing world. Indeed one may argue that some rivals to Western neo-liberalism as it emerged in Western Europe and North America such as fascism, Naziism or Soviet-style socialism were mere failed experiments, whose people management techniques could serve a future ruling class once we had the technology to placate the masses through endless entertainment and effective mind control without relying on their brainpower to keep the economy going. This has always been our rulers’ main dilemma: How can they prevent the masses from shaping the future of our society and gaining greater personal independence?
We can set six simple tests to track our progress towards this Huxleyan dystopia:
1) Pervasive Surveillance
We can still retreat to our private spaces and shield ourselves from electronic surveillance by logging off or taking basic precautions to protect our privacy. However, slowly but surely as cybernetics invade our domestic life and natural language processing evolves, more and more of our informal communication is monitored. People have already been arrested, fined and jailed for politically incorrect comments on social media. Facebook now analyses messages via NLP to filter posts and add links to fact-checking sites to correct suppositions that threaten certain vested interests. Meanwhile governments are keen to prevent citizens from using any indecipherable form of encryption. For the time being it appears the technically savvy can easily outwit any restrictions imposed by technically illiterate politicians, but the tech giants are already colluding with big government to police cyberspace. Just imagine how such techniques could evolve once we routinely have bio-chip implants capable of monitoring our thoughts.
2) Mind Control Through Entertainment and Stupefaction
The leisure and entertainment sectors have grown in leaps and bounds over the last six decades. Once upon a time commoners would make do with rudimentary means to amuse each other at communal festivities. Today entertainment is a multibillion dollar industry that pervades every aspect of our lives, whether recreational, educational or professional. However, we still have a wealth of choice and may filter out forms of commercialised distraction that do not suit our tastes or high standards. In many modern settings we have to little choice but to consume genres of music and cinematography that clearly have psychological impacts. Some of us have been desensitised to such audiovisual ferocity that we hardly notice it. We could treat stupefaction as a separate facet, but it is just another means of mind control and people management. Human beings have long experimented with psychotropic substances to regulate mood and foster harmony and connectedness. We could argue that caffeine, cannabis, opiates and khat have long helped make our lives bearable in different ways. However, such crude substances have undesirable side effects that may harm one’s physical or mental health, trigger social unrest and are weaken the power of current rulers. Psychoactive substances are thus regulated, i.e. suppressed where their adverse effects may unduly harm public health or social stability and encouraged where their mood-altering properties can suppress undesirable moods or behaviours. While smoking rates have declined swiftly in much of the West over the last 3 decades, the prescription of antidepressants, stimulants and antipsychotics has grown as more and more people are diagnosed with a growing array of conditions that psychiatrists believe require such treatment. Psychopharmacologists recognise that people not only react to drugs in different ways, but psychoactive medications inevitably interact with food, drink and numerous artificial additives as well as naturally with recreational drugs. We do not yet have a universal Soma-style drug that can reliably pacify citizens by suppressing negative thoughts and erasing unpleasant memories, but we’re getting very close. Arguably other means of pacification are more effective, such as action-packed movies, fast-beat music and online gaming that entertain our senses and distract our minds from real world events. Recent moves to legalise, commercialise and regulate marijuana in a number of countries, states and provinces may harbinger a near future where most people are no longer required to undertake any intellectually or physically demanding tasks, but merely stay happy, inspire their friends and relatives and act as consumer guinea pigs.
3) Artificial Reproduction and Managed Life Termination
While the first two criteria are common to other dystopian visions, artificial reproduction defines the Brave New World scenario. Despite our evolved intelligence, natural procreation remains the primary driver of human behaviour and organisation. However, it relies on clearly defined biological genders and competition for the most desirable partners. So far we have only made tentative baby steps towards state-controlled procreation. IVF normalised the concept of using fertility clinics to produce your offspring. Originally billed as a way to help heterosexual couples who failed to conceive naturally, the technique is now available for single parents and gay couples. As the proportion of children born to single parents grows, the authorities have phased out heteronormative terms such as mother and father and even replaced the term parent with caregiver. Meanwhile, social workers play a greater role in monitoring vulnerable parents and may take children away from problematic parents and assign them to new substitute carers. We already have the technology to bypass natural mothers and fathers altogether. In 2015 the British government authorised three parent babies produced by inserting one’s mother’s artificially fertilised egg nucleus in a donor oocyte (egg shell), a technique known as Mitochondrial replacement therapy. Moreover, artificial wombs are no longer science fiction. Some Swedish women have already borne babies in transplanted wombs, a technology which could also help men and male-to-female transgender people experience pregnancy. The next logical step is to enable embryos to grow in artificial wombs. It would only be a matter of time before extracorporeal gestation became the norm for healthy women too as a means to avoid all potential medical complications for baby and progenitors alike. The first successful human cloning may soon reach the public domain, but merely copying imperfect human blueprints will not satisfy our elite’s lust to enhance their intellectual superiority. The real breakthrough to look out for will be the perfection of gene-editing in embryos, paving the way for designer babies, who combined with machine-augmented intelligence may form a kind of super-race.
Phasing out Senility
Senility presents a massive people management challenge as modern medicine has extended our live expectancy. The elderly with mild to medium forms of dementia are not only staid in their ways, but can impair the effectiveness of socialisation techniques aimed at the younger generation. Currently euthanasia has only been legalised tentatively in a few jurisdictions, but in the Netherlands some people with severe mental illnesses have been allowed to opt to terminate their lives. More disturbing is the rapid shift in public policy and attitudes over the last 15 years. The Netherlands has seen a rise of state-sectioned mercy killings from 1815 in 2003, 3136 in 2010 and to 6091 last year (2016), which is around 1 in 30 of all deaths. Lawmakers are now considering euthanasia for healthy people over the age of 75 through legislation ominously known in English as the Completed Life Bill.
4) Sex for recreational purposes only
In human beings sex has always played a role in intimate bonding, often as a reward for loyalty to one’s partner and conscientious behaviour within a relationship. It’s also the ultimate expression of positive discrimination either for high-status partners or superlative physiques. All societies have sexual taboos, for while eroticism may reap many rewards, it can also cause psychological and physical harm as well as yield unwanted babies. However, once all procreation is achieved through artificial means, i.e. without either copulation or gestation, mutually pleasurable stimulation of the erogenous zones can take on a different role. In just 50 years attitudes to non-heteronormative expressions of sexuality have shifted dramatically in much of the world. Yet our private actions are increasingly subject to scrutiny in a deluge of confusing and conflicting mixed messages as surveillance encroaches on our private lives. In keeping with the contemporary mood Huxley foresaw recreational sex as lighthearted consequence-free fun between men and women and failed to speculate on the normalisation of acts that most traditional societies have deemed either perverse or only permissible in special circumstances. Of course, we could not only use genetic engineering to let us enjoy carefree sex, but also to suppress potentially harmful or unhealthy sexual urges or unleash our erotic desires on life-like sex dolls as envisaged in the 2015 movie Ex Machina. In George Orwell’s 1984 the all-powerful state frowned upon sexual liaisons between lovers as such acts may form lasting personal bonds that weaken the Party’s grip on power. Orwell, I suspect, remained a techno-pessimist as he contemplated the aftermath of a barbaric world war and the spectre of a nuclear Armageddon. Our attitudes to sexuality are likely to adapt rapidly to technological and cultural changes. However, our ruling classes will seek to exploit our natural desires both to pacify us and as another pretext to spy on us.
5) Division of humanity into bio-social castes with differing neurological profiles
Eugenics remained a common theme within the Western intelligentsia before the second world war. Anthropologists did not shy from ascribing different intelligence profiles to different subgroups of humanity. Among the keenest advocates of eugenics, i.e. state intervention to discourage the intellectually impaired from breeding, was the former Fabian society president and renowned novelist George Bernard Shaw. The Fabian society has long been at the heart of orthodox British progressivism, believing that the state exists to guide both the economy and the people to a better more prosperous tomorrow through benevolent social engineering. The main distinction between Fabian gradualists and revolutionary Bolsheviks was that the former believed they could bring about a more egalitarian society by subverting the current system, why the latter believed we need first to overthrow capitalism before a vanguard party could guide the workers to new communist utopia. Fabians recognised that only free enterprise could create the kind of sophisticated technology they will need to transition to a form of collectivism that satisfies all our existential and emotional needs .
The defeat of National Socialism with its concept of Aryan racial superiority and the emergence of Anglo-American social liberalism thwarted the plans of eugenicists. To counter the appeal of Soviet-style socialism, the dynamic mixed economies of the West had to champion equality of opportunities for all. By the 1960s mainstream academia and social policy makers had consigned racial eugenics to the dustbin of imperial history as the last vestige of white European supremacy. It is admittedly hard to win public support in a nominally democratic system if you deem a large portion of your electorate intellectually inferior.
Yet elitism, or the belief that intellectually superior upper class should guide social progress, has never really gone away and neither have our enlightened rulers abandoned eugenics altogether. Instead they peddle the mantra of equality and diversity, emphasising how people may be both equal, but have different neurological profiles that presumably have genetic roots. In our everyday lives we meet people who use their intelligence in radically different ways. Simon Baron Cohen, head of developmental psychopathology of the University of Cambridge, popularised a spectrum from extreme systematisers to extreme empathisers in his best-selling book, The Essential Difference: Men, Women and the Extreme Male Brain. One may interpret his theory as confirming sexual dimorphism applies to neurology as well as to anatomy, but also redefining autism no longer as a rare developmental disorder but as spectrum that stretches into mainstream humanity in the form of Asperger’s Syndrome or high functioning autism. The theory appears to imply there is some sort of trade-off between cold-blooded systematic analysis and the kind of advanced soft people skills that have become so important in our networked society. However, others disagree. We may use the same intellectual skills to negotiate personal interactions as we apply to scientific analysis. Human relationships are subject to many unwritten rules and often require contextual adaptations as we try to guess another person’s intentions and feelings. Psychologists often refer to traits such as agreeableness or conscientiousness alongside openness to experience, extraversion and neuroticism. The growing focus on mental health with the psychiatrisation of every conceivable personality flaw such as depression, anxiety, shyness, hyperactivity or compulsivity have led researchers and medical professionals to explore the distribution of these traits ad infinitum. Market researchers and policy makers take a special interest in neurological diversity. They are no longer content to segment markets only by age group, gender, ethnic background or educational attainment. They want to build complex character profiles to ascertain your susceptibility to different marketing approaches, e.g. are you a conformist who merely follows fashion or do you try to swim against the tide and seek counter-cultures ? More ominously techniques pioneered for market research can help identify groups of people with problematic mindsets who may hold opinions at odds with our ruler’s social engineering strategy.
The missing piece in this human jigsaw puzzle is of course IQ. While being more or less gregarious or more or less conformist does not necessarily make you more or less valid as a human being, a biologically determined and thus immutable IQ is the one factor that can justify privilege and greater power. In the US SATs (Scholastic Aptitude Tests) serve as approximate IQ tests. In the UK standardised national literacy and numeracy tests serve more to measure a pupil’s receptivity to teaching methods than their culturally neutral analytical intelligence. However, mental health screening, which may soon become mandatory, reintroduces true IQ tests through the backdoor. Rest assured similar initiatives are afoot in other countries too, all under the pretext of helping vulnerable young people overcome mental health issues. Meanwhile we’ve seen a marked rise in the proportion of youngsters with severe learning disabilities, i.e. boys and girls who are not merely a bit weird, geekish or boisterous but who have not mastered some of the most basic life skills and will in all likelihood require constant assistance as adults. Learning disabilities now cover a very wide range of perceived intellectual impairments. In some cases it may be hard to ascertain if they are caused by psychosocial rather than mainly biological factors. Since the 1990s special needs education has mushroomed. In England and Wales alone there were 471,000 assistants by 2014 employed to help pupils with special learning challenges. While teaching aides may sometimes just help pupils whose home language is not English get up to speed in the default language of instruction (around 1/4 of English school pupils have foreign parents), extra language help would usually only be a temporary requirement especially as young children tend to absorb the dominant language from peers, television and online media. In some mainstream schools special needs pupils may only be a small percentage, but in others, especially in deprived areas, this proportion can rise significantly once we include pupils with ADHD who are routinely medicated with the stimulant methylphenidate, commonly known as Ritalin. In some primary schools as many as 1 in 4 pupils are on such psychoactive drugs. Dyslexia is another phenomenon, often ascribed to whole-word teaching of English spelling, that may fall under the broad umbrella of learning disabilities.
Educationalists prefer to explain our growing awareness of learning disabilities in terms of a more inclusive and caring society that wants to help people who in previous generations would have fallen by the wayside, ended up austere institutions or suffered early deaths through neglect. As a result health visitors and paediatricians are much more likely to refer children for diagnosis. However, other factors may have contributed to this rise, most notably the much higher survival rate of premature babies, greater use of IVF for conception, higher preponderance of multiple births (in the US this has risen from 1 in 53 in 1980 to 1 in 33 in 2014 ) and medical advances that enable severely disabled children to survive into adulthood. Whether you like it or not, in traditional societies before the advent of modern medicine any child with a severe neurological handicap unable to undertake basic life tasks would have been left to die. While many view our greater generosity towards weaker members of our community as a sign of social progress, it does bring with it a dilemma. We now have to acknowledge that some people may have a significantly lower intellectual capacity and thus be less able to fully participate in the organisation of a complex society. When the neurologically handicapped made up less than 1% of people, we could easily accommodate them as a vulnerable category exempt from the normal responsibilities of life. It seemed common sense, at least based on our traditional emphasis on greater self-reliance, that we should prevent such people from procreating as they would be unable to look after their offspring. However, now both consensual sexual activity and parenthood are viewed as rights rather than privileges or responsibilities. Few have pondered the implications of allowing the proliferation of intellectually impaired underclasses. Indeed even to mention the subject invites instant derision as a latter-day eugenicist. Yet the normalisation of dysfunctional personality profiles and dysgenics through the higher survival rate of the neurologically impaired may well lead to the emergence of submissive human subcategories akin to Aldous Huxley’s epsilons and deltas. In a near future where smart robotics has relieved most of humanity of the need to work, happiness, social integration and compliance (extreme agreeableness in psychology) may be more highly valued than analytical intelligence.
6) Suppression of Free Will and Independent Thought, except as personal preferences and behaviours subject to psychoanalysis
Many high profile intellectuals believe free will is a mere illusion. However, our whole conception of individual liberty, self-determination, human rights and common law is founded on the premise that we all have independent minds capable of critical thinking. Psychiatry reduces human ideation and emotions to biochemical reactions or a complex combination of biological and environmental stimuli. By this logic homicide is not so much a crime as a behavioural malfunction that leads to an unfortunate death. I guess that’s how we would explain the erratic behaviour of a robot that destroyed another robot.
Free will lies at the heart of what it means to be human, but we usually only ascribe full responsibility to adults of sound mind, i.e. only a mature mind has gained enough experience to make independent decisions. In most legal systems parents or other responsible adults are held accountable for the actions of minors and are thus entrusted with their discipline. However, the current trend to explain aberrant behaviours in psychiatric terms effectively infantilises the whole of humanity, except an elusive cabal of experts and higher authorities.
Psychoanalysts can even explain beliefs and political opinions as predictable reactions to environmental conditioning and neurological profiles that affect the way we process information. It is certainly easy to see how social conditioning can affect our opinions but some of us can and do think out of the box and challenge orthodox thinking. By dismissing unwelcome viewpoints as reactionary, populist or childish, the intellectual elite imply that we may not participate in the decision-making process unless we accept their presumed expertise. Thus in a referendum on a contentious issue such as nuclear power we decide which set of experts to believe. Yet the elite still needs to give us the illusion of democratic accountability just we like to take ownership of our ideas, which are seldom original and inevitably rely on prior art. In a dictatorship the appointed government and business classes exercise power on behalf of the people, who have to be conditioned to accept their authority. By contrast in a nominal democracy, the ruling classes manufacture consent for a range of acceptable policy options. Nonetheless we have witnessed rapid cultural change despite the conservative instincts of Western electorates. Most of the baby steps we have taken so far towards the Brave New World scenario have not been openly discussed until they are presented as ineluctable aspects of modern life. The point is while earlier technological advances have certainly transformed our societies, the next stages in the ongoing bio-engineering and artificial intelligence revolutions may transform what it means to be human.