Though I rarely make new year resolutions, one of my goals for 2018 is to regulate the time I spend on social media. While I do find Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram important sources of information and connection, I’ve also found it increasingly difficult to disengage from them. Often, entire hours slip by while I’m caught up by one distraction or another when I get onto one of these platforms.
As it happens, I read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) over the new year break, and these seemingly trivial distractions are the very things the novel positions as future tools of control.
Envisioning a totalitarian future society, Brave New World is a seminal dystopian science fiction classic – often compared to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four for both its commentary on the future as well as its eerie prescience.
Both novels depict a future where government controls citizens completely, with no room for opposition. But where Huxley’s story diverges from Orwell’s – and perhaps in ways that are even more terrifying – is in how this state is achieved.
In the Orwellian future, pervasive surveillance and swift retribution has created a society that fears opposing the regime. Huxley, however, imagines a future where there is no need for surveillance or punishment because humans have been thoroughly conditioned to be happy with their lives.
In Brave New World, genetic manipulation has created a society split into caste systems based on mental and physical abilities that are specifically bred for. Members of each group are exposed to intense conditioning from the embryonic stage to keep them content in these specific conditions. Furthermore, people are kept in order through the constant provision of pleasure – sex, mindless entertainment, sensorial stimulation, and mind-altering drugs.
Perhaps the most insidious aspect of this world is that none of it is done in secret; every aspect of this engineering is known and simply accepted. After all, if the system keeps everyone happy, why buck it?
In his essay Brave New World Revisited (1958), Huxley explains the role of these “distractions” as tools of control: “They did not foresee what in fact has happened … the development of a vast mass communications industry, concerned in the main neither with the true nor the false, but with the unreal, the more or less totally irrelevant.
“In a word, they failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions…. In Brave New World non-stop distractions of the most fascinating nature are deliberately used as instruments of policy, for the purpose of preventing people from paying too much attention to the realities of the social and political situation.”
It is difficult not to see parallels between that and our entertainment-saturated realities today. A quick scroll through most social media feeds will reveal just how much of the online experience is built around these jolts of pleasure, from people “liking” our posts to food and travel experiences that give us vicarious enjoyment to feel-good videos that generate positive feelings.
Increasingly, even news and education have become more and more similar to entertainment. And with the increasing availability of customisable experiences online, one is able to consume only the things that give one pleasure or fit in with one’s world view, while avoiding anything that doesn’t.
Of course, that still doesn’t put us anywhere close to the chilling future depicted in Brave New World. The book did, however, make me re-evaluate my relationship with the “distractions” of social media – because I have found that they distract me from other, more active forms of engagement.
For me, one way of dealing with this is to focus on intent. The Internet and social media is an amazing resource of information, knowledge and entertainment, but it is easy to get sucked into the banal and trivial too. Thinking about and planning what I want to consume online is one way to avoid mindlessly scrolling.
Intent can also mean seeking out entertainment that is edifying. The connectivity of the Internet now gives us access to books, movies and TV shows on important, relevant issues – particularly from communities that don’t have an equal voice.
And along with intent comes actual action. In Brave New World, one of the regime’s biggest achievements is creating a comfortable passiveness in its people. Social media has a way of encouraging passiveness too, of creating the illusion of “doing” when all we’re doing is observing.
So most of all, with the time I hope to save from regulating my time online, I hope to do more – both for myself and for those around me. Happy 2018 everyone!