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'Brave New World' predicted today's world better than any other novel
His book warns us of the dangers of mass media, passivity, and how even an intelligent population can be driven to gladly choose dictatorship over freedom.
- This 1931 novel predicted modern life almost to a (model) T.
- While other dystopias get more press, Brave New World offers us a nightmare world that we've moved steadily towards over the last century.
- Author Aldous Huxley's ideas on a light handed totalitarian dictatorship stand in marked contrast to the popular image of a dictatorship that relies on force.
When most people think of what dystopia our society is sprinting towards, they tend to think of 1984, The Handmaid's Tale, or the Hunger Games. These top selling, well known, and well-written titles are excellent warnings of worlds that could come to pass that we would all do well to read.
However, one lesser-known dystopian novel has done a much better job at predicting the future than these three books. Brave New World, written in 1931 by author, psychonaut, and philosopher Aldous Huxley, is well known but hasn't quite had the pop-culture breakthrough that the other three did.
This is regrettable, as it offers us a detailed image of a dystopia that our society is not only moving towards but would be happy to have.
Henry Ford With His Model T. In the novel, Ford is worshiped as a god for his use of the assembly line in a way that is frighteningly similar to how we swoon over tech gurus in Silicon Valley.
For those who haven't read it, Brave New World is the description of a nightmare society where everybody is perfectly happy all the time. This is assured through destroying the free will of most of the population using genetic engineering and Pavlovian conditioning, keeping everybody entertained continuously with endless distractions, and offering a plentiful supply of the wonder drug Soma to keep people happy if all else fails.
The world state is a dictatorship which strives to assure order. The dictatorship is managed by ten oligarchs who rely on an extensive bureaucracy to keep the world running. The typical person is conditioned to love their subservience and either be proud of the vital work they do or be relieved that they don't have to worry about the problems of the world.
Global stability is ensured through the Fordist religion, which is based on the teachings of Henry Ford and Sigmund Freud and involves the worship of both men. The tenets of this faith encourage mass consumerism, sexual promiscuity, and avoiding unhappiness at all costs. The assembly line is praised as though it were a gift from God.
Huxley's dystopia is especially terrifying in that the enslaved population absolutely loves their slavery. Even the characters who are smart enough to know what is going on (and why they should be concerned) are instead content with everything that is happening. Perhaps more terrifying than other dystopian novels, in Brave New World there is truly no hope for change.
The similarities between the world of today and the world of the book are many, even if our technology hasn't quite caught up yet.
While the human assembly line described in the first part of the story is still a far-off fantasy, the basic concepts that make it work are already here. Today, people make choices to influence the genetic makeup of their children regularly.
Pre-natal screening has created the ability for many parents to decide if they wish to carry a disabled fetus to term or not. In Iceland, this has resulted in the near eradication of new cases of Down Syndrome in the country. Almost 100% of detected cases lead to an abortion shortly after.
Similarly, testing for a child's sex before birth is a well-known procedure that leads to a wide gender gap in many countries. Less well known is the process of sperm sorting, which allows for a couple to choose the gender of their child as part of the process of in-vitro fertilization.
The above examples suggest we're open to soft eugenics already. Imagine what would happen if people could determine their child's potential IQ before birth, or how rebellious they will be as a teenager. It would be difficult to suggest that the development of such technology would not be hailed as progress by those who could afford to use it. Huxley's visions of a genetically perfected upper caste might be available soon.
As this article suggests, some choice in baby design is already here and more will be available soon.
The characters of Brave New World enjoy endless distractions between their hours at work. Various complex games have been invented, movies now engage all five senses, and there are even televisions at the feet of death beds. Nobody ever has to worry about being bored for long. The idea of enjoying solitude is taboo, and most people go out to parties every night.
In our modern society, most people genuinely can't go thirty minutes without wanting to check their phones. We have, just as Huxley predicted, made it possible to abolish boredom and time for spare thoughts no matter where you are. This is already having measurable effects on our mental health and our brain structure.
Huxley wasn't warning us against watching television or going to the movies occasionally; he says in this interview with Mike Wallace that TV can be harmless, but rather against the constant barrage of distraction becoming more important in our lives than facing the problems that affect us. Given how stressful people find the idea of a tech-free day and how we take our pop culture so seriously that it was targeted for use by Russian bots, he might have been onto something.
Drugs: A gram is better than a damn!
Brave New World's favorite pill, Soma, is quite the drug. In small doses it causes euphoria. In moderate doses, it causes enjoyable hallucinations, and in large doses, it is a tranquilizer. It is probably a pharmacological impossibility, but his concept of a society that pops pills to eradicate any vestige of negative feelings and escape the doldrums of the day is very real.
While it seems odd to say that we are moving towards Brave New World in this era when official policy is opposed to drug use, Huxley would suggest we consider it a blessing, since a dictatorship that encouraged drug use to zonk out their population would be a powerful, if light handed one.
While today we have a war on drugs, it is not on all drugs. Anti-depressants, a powerful tool for the treatment of mental illness, are so popular that one in eight Americans are on them right now. This doesn't include the large number of Americans on tranquilizers, anti-anxiety medications, or those who self-medicate with alcohol or increasingly legal marijuana.
These drugs aren't quite Soma, but they bear a striking resemblance in function and use.
In the book, the stability of the world state is partly based on total employment. A character informs us that automation has been purposely stalled to assure everybody can work since free time would give them enough extra time to think about their condition. Mass employment relies on mass consumption, however, and numerous systems are in place to assure everybody keeps using new products even when they don't need anything.
Consumerism is a significant element in all major economies today. While it makes sense that a company would have an incentive to keep us buying things to remain profitable, Huxley's point is that consumerism can also be used to keep us pointlessly chasing after items that we think we need to be happy as a distraction from exploring other pursuits.
While Huxley thought a dictatorship would have to condition people to want to buy new things and throw out last year's products to buy similar but newer ones, the lines and fights at Black Friday sales suggest otherwise. Or the lines for every new release of the iPhone.
And just in case you thought it was only corporations getting in on the pressure, don't forget George Bush wanted you to fight terror by shopping.
Happiness as the only acceptable state of mind
In our modern lives, a similar view on happiness as exists in the novel is developing. In his book The Happiness Industry, William Davies argues that modern capitalism has come across the concept of making happiness the only acceptable mental state and run with it to make more money. Our new found slew of Corporate Happiness Officers and self-help gurus are all designed to keep us happy, consuming, and unwilling to question the larger system in place, he argues.
This notion is summarized in his book in one, jargon-laden, sentence:
The relentless fascination with quantities of subjective feeling can only possibility divert critical attention away from broader political and economic problems.
While claims that we are redefining unhappiness as unacceptable might seem overblown, the standard manual of mental illness now says grieving for deceased loved ones more than a few days is problematic. Perhaps Mr. Davies is onto something.
The concentration of power
Huxley expressed concern in his follow-up book Brave New World Revisited that the increasing complexity of technology and global problems had led to a concentration of power both in business and government. This concentration, he argued, not only made people more comfortable with the idea of being subjugated but also made dictatorship easier to enact.
Today, we have a higher concentration of wealth and power than ever before. In the United States, the top 1% are richer than ever, six corporations control 90% of the media, and the power of undemocratic institutions such as corporations or byzantine bureaucracies are greater than ever before. Many Americans choose not to vote and have the same influence on their government that they would if they had no right to vote.
This can lead to situations little different than that of 1984 but without the hard-totalitarian edge that came with it. In 1984 there was only one television station, and there was no attempt to hide the fact that the government controlled it. In the United States today dozens of seemingly different networks are controlled by a few conglomerates and often promote the same worldview and opinions as a result.
Huxley himself warned against this very situation when he talked about how we were approaching his dystopia back in 1958:
Well, at the present the television, I think, is being used quite harmlessly; it's being used, I think, I would feel, it's being used too much to distract everybody all the time. But, I mean, imagine which must be the situation in all communist countries where the television, where it exists, is always saying the same things the whole time; it's always driving along. It's not creating a wide front of distraction it's creating a one-pointed, drumming in of a single idea, all the time. It's obviously an immensely powerful instrument.
Despite being able to find this out or turn the channel, millions of people willingly continue to watch what might be called propaganda from friendly faces. Indeed, they love it. This soft totalitarianism is often hard to detect or state an objection to, which Slavoj Zizek argues is the point.
How do we avoid this dystopia? Or is the Brave New World already inevitable?
Huxley thought we could save ourselves, though we had to act quickly. While his concerns around overpopulation and eugenics have been shown to be bunk by the march of history, his other ideas still have merit.
In his follow up book Brave New World Revisited, he argues for the decentralization of power as a means to restore the value of democratic government to the typical person who might otherwise realize their vote is meaningless and lose faith in democracy as a result. He suggests that we can better educate people for freedom by drawing their attention to the methods of demagogues and sleazy advertisers. He encouraged those seeking freedom to move to the countryside or to establish stronger neighborhood ties in the cities to resist the pressure to only engage with others as an economic unit and not as a full human being.
He was also warm to the ideas of syndicalism and worker cooperatives, which seek to restructure workplaces to feature workers democratically managing them. He saw this as both a way to decentralize the economy and improve democratic participation.
Aldous Huxley's Brave New World was a prediction of a nightmare he thought we would be safe from for at least a few hundred years when he wrote it in 1931. By 1958 he realized he had been very optimistic. While we aren't entirely doomed to the pleasant slavery he envisioned quite yet, the march of progress continues to bring us the tools which make it ever simpler to enact. If we will make the choices needed to avoid it or if we will willingly cry out to be saved from our freedom remains to be answered.
Scientists used CT scanning and 3D-printing technology to re-create the voice of Nesyamun, an ancient Egyptian priest.
- Scientists printed a 3D replica of the vocal tract of Nesyamun, an Egyptian priest whose mummified corpse has been on display in the UK for two centuries.
- With the help of an electronic device, the reproduced voice is able to "speak" a vowel noise.
- The team behind the "Voices of the Past" project suggest reproducing ancient voices could make museum experiences more dynamic.
Scientists have reproduced the voice of an ancient Egyptian priest by creating a 3D-printed replica of his mummified vocal tract.
An international and interdisciplinary team, led by David Howard, a professor of electronic engineering at Royal Holloway, used computed tomography (CT) scanning technology to measure the dimensions of the vocal tract of Nesyamun, a mummy that's spent about two centuries on display at Leeds City Museum in the United Kingdom.
The team then used those measurements to 3D-print an artificial vocal tract, through which they produced sounds using a peculiar electronic device called the Vocal Tract Organ. (You can check it out here.)
"The Vocal Tract Organ, a first in its own right, provided the inspiration for doing this," Howard told CNET.
Nesyamun, whose priestly duties included chanting and singing the daily liturgy, can once again "speak" — at least, in the form of a vowel noise that sounds something like a cross between the English pronunciation of the vowels in "bed" and "bad."
Of course, the new "voice" of Nesyamun is an approximation, and given the lack of actual recordings of his voice, and the degeneration of his body over millennia, it's impossible to know just how accurate it is. But the researchers suggested that their "Voice from the Past" project offers a chance for people to "engage with the past in completely new and innovative ways."
Howard et al.
"While this approach has wide implications for heritage management/museum display, its relevance conforms exactly to the ancient Egyptians' fundamental belief that 'to speak the name of the dead is to make them live again'," they wrote in a paper published in Nature Scientific Reports. "Given Nesyamun's stated desire to have his voice heard in the afterlife in order to live forever, the fulfilment of his beliefs through the synthesis of his vocal function allows us to make direct contact with ancient Egypt by listening to a sound from a vocal tract that has not been heard for over 3000 years, preserved through mummification and now restored through this new technique."
Connecting modern people with history
It's not the first time scientists have "re-created" an ancient human's voice. In 2016, for example, Italian researchers used software to reconstruct the voice of Ötzi, an iceman who was discovered in 1991 and is thought to have died more than 5,000 years ago. But the "Voices of the Past" project is different, the researchers note, because Nesyamun's mummified corpse is especially well preserved.
"It was particularly suited, given its age and preservation [of its soft tissues], which is unusual," Howard told Live Science.
As to whether Nesyamun's reconstructed voice will ever be able to speak complete sentences, Howard told The Associated Press, that it's "something that is being worked on, so it will be possible one day."
John Schofield, an archaeologist at the University of York, said that reproducing voices from history can make museum experiences "more multidimensional."
"There is nothing more personal than someone's voice," he told The Associated Press. "So we think that hearing a voice from so long ago will be an unforgettable experience, making heritage places like Karnak, Nesyamun's temple, come alive."
Ancient corridors below the French capital have served as its ossuary, playground, brewery, and perhaps soon, air conditioning.
- People have been digging up limestone and gypsum from below Paris since Roman times.
- They left behind a vast network of corridors and galleries, since reused for many purposes — most famously, the Catacombs.
- Soon, the ancient labyrinth may find a new lease of life, providing a sustainable form of air conditioning.
Ancient mining areas below Paris for limestone (red) and gypsum (green).Credit: Émile Gérards (1859–1920) / Public domain
"If you're brave enough to try, you might be able to catch a train from UnLondon to Parisn't, or No York, or Helsunki, or Lost Angeles, or Sans Francisco, or Hong Gone, or Romeless."
China Miéville's fantasy novel Un Lun Dun is set in an eerie mirror version of London. In it, he hints that other cities have similar doubles. On the list that he offhandedly rattles off, Paris stands out. Because the City of Light really does have a twisted sister. Below Paris Overground is Paris Underground, the City of Darkness.
Most people will have heard of the Catacombs of Paris: subterranean charnel houses for the bones of around six million dead Parisians. They are one of the French capital's most famous tourist attractions – and undoubtedly its grisliest.
But they constitute only a small fragment of what the locals themselves call les carrières de Paris ("the mines of Paris"), a collection of tunnels and galleries up to 300 km (185 miles) long, most of which are off-limits to the public, yet eagerly explored by so-called cataphiles.
The Grand Réseau Sud ("Great Southern Network") takes up around 200 km beneath the 5th, 6th, 14th, and 15th arrondissements (administrative districts), all south of the river Seine. Smaller networks run beneath the 12th, 13th, and 16th arrondissements. How did they get there?
Paris stone and plaster of Paris
It all starts with geology. Sediments left behind by ancient seas created large deposits of limestone in the south of the city, mostly south of the Seine; and gypsum in the north, particularly in the hills of Montmartre and Ménilmontant. Highly sought after as building materials, both have been mined since Roman times.
The limestone is also known as Lutetian limestone (Lutetia is the Latin name for ancient Paris) or simply "Paris stone." It has been used for many famous Paris landmarks, including the Louvre and the grand buildings erected during Georges-Eugène Haussmann's large-scale remodelling of the city in the mid-19th century. The stone's warm, yellowish color provides visual unity and a bright elegance to the city.
The fine-powdered gypsum of northern Paris, used for making quick-setting plaster, was so famed for its quality that "plaster of Paris" is still used as a term of distinction. However, as gypsum is very soluble in water, the underground cavities left by its extraction were extremely vulnerable to collapse.
Like living on top of a rotting tooth: subsidence starts far below the surface, but it can destroy your house.Credit : Delavanne Avocats
In previous centuries, a road would occasionally open up to swallow a chariot, or even a whole house would disappear down a sinkhole. In 1778, a catastrophic subsidence in Ménilmontant killed seven. That's why the Montmartre gypsum quarries were dynamited rather than just left as they were. The remaining gypsum caves were to be filled up with concrete.
The official body governing Paris down below is the Inspection Générale des Carrières (IGC), founded in the late 1770s by King Louis XVI. The IGC was tasked with mapping and, where needed, propping up the current and ancient (and sometimes forgotten) mining corridors and galleries hiding beneath Paris.
A delightful hiding place
Also around that time, the dead of Paris were getting in the way of the living. At the end of the 18th century, their final destination consisted of about 200 small cemeteries, scattered throughout the city — all bursting at the seams, so to speak. There was no room to bury the newly dead, and the previously departed were fouling up both the water and air around their respective churchyards.
Something radical had to happen. And it did. From 1785 until 1814, the smaller cemeteries were emptied of their bones, which were transported with full funerary pomp to their final resting place in the ancient limestone quarries at Tombe-Issoire. Three large and modern cemeteries were opened to receive the remains of subsequent generations of Parisians: Montparnasse, Père-Lachaise, and Passy.
The six million dead Parisians in the Catacombs, from all corners of the capital and across many centuries, together form the world's largest necropolis — their now anonymized skulls and bones methodically stacked, occasionally into whimsical patterns. The Catacombs are fashioned into a memorial to the brevity of life. The message above the entrance reads: Arrête! C'est ici l'empire de la Mort. ("Halt! This is the empire of Death.")
That has not stopped the Catacombs, accessible via a side door to a classicist building on the Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, making just about every Top 20 list of things to see in Paris.
An underground economy
However, while the Catacombs certainly are the most famous part of the centuries-old network beneath Paris, and in non-pandemic times draw thousands of tourists each day, they constitute just 1.7 km (1 mile) of the 300-km (185-mile) tunneling total.
Subterranean Paris wasn't just used for mining and storing dead people. In the 17th century, Carthusian monks converted the ancient quarries under their monastery into distilleries for the green or yellow liqueur that still carries their name, chartreuse.
Because the mines generally keep a constant cool temperature of around 15° C (60° F), they were also ideal for brewing beer, as happened on a large scale from the end of the 17th century until well into the 20th century. Several caves were dug especially for establishing breweries, and not just because of the ambient temperature: going underground allowed brewers to remain close to their customers without having to pay a premium for real estate up top.
Overview of the Paris Catacombs.Credit: Inspection Générale des Carrières, 1857 / Public domain.
At the end of the 19th century, the underground breweries of the 14th arrondissement alone produced more than a million hectoliters (22 million gallons) per year. One of the most famous of Paris' underground breweries, Dumesnil, stayed in operation until the late 1960s.
In that decade, the network of corridors and galleries south of the Seine, long since abandoned by miners, became the unofficial playground for the young people of Paris. They explored the fantastical world beneath their feet, in some cases via entry points located in their very schools. Fascinated, these cataphiles ("catacomb lovers") read up on old books, explored the subterranean labyrinth, and drew up schematics that were passed around among fellow initiates as reverently as treasure maps.
As Robert Macfarlane writes in Underland, Paris-beneath-their-feet became "a place where people might slip into different identities, assume new ways of being and relating, become fluid and wild in ways that are constrained on the surface."
Some larger caves turned into notorious party zones: a 7-meter-tall gallery below the Val-de-Grâce hospital is widely known as "Salle Z." Over the last few decades, various other locations in subterranean Paris have hosted jazz and rock concerts and rave parties — like no other city, Paris really has an "underground music scene."
Hokusai's Great Wave as the backdrop to the "beach" under Paris.Credit: Reddit
Cataphiles vs. cataphobes
With popularity came increased reports of nuisance and crime — the tunnels provided easy access to telephone cables, which were stolen for the resale value of their copper.
The general public's "discovery" of the underground network led the city of Paris to officially interdict all access by non-authorized persons. That decree dates back to 1955, but the "underground police" have an understanding with seasoned cataphiles. Their main targets are so-called tourists, who by their lack of knowledge expose themselves to risk of injuries or worse, and degrade their surroundings, often leaving loads of litter in their wake.
The understanding does not extend to the IGC. Unlike in the 19th century, when weak cavities were shored up by purpose-built pillars, the policy now is to inject concrete to fill up endangered spaces — thus progressively blocking off parts of the network. That procedure has also been used to separate the Catacombs to prevent "infiltration" of the site by cataphiles.
Many subterranean streets have their own names, signs and all. This is the Rue des Bourguignons (Street of the Burgundians) below the Champs des Capucins (Capuchin Field), neither of which exists on the surface.Credit: Jean-François Gornet via Wikimedia and licensed under
The cataphiles, however, are fighting back. In a game of cat and mouse with the authorities, they are reopening blocked passages and creating chatières ("cat flaps") through which they can squeeze into chambers no longer accessible via other underground corridors.
Catacomb climate control
Alone against the unstoppable tide of concrete, the amateurs of Underground Paris would be helpless. But the fight against climate change may turn the subterranean labyrinths from a liability into an asset — and the City of Paris into an ally.
The UN's 2015 Climate Plan — concluded in Paris, by the way — requires the world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent by 2050. And Paris itself wants to be Europe's greenest city by 2030. More sustainable climate control of our living spaces would be a great help toward both targets. A lot of energy is spent heating houses in winter and cooling them in summer.
This is where the constant temperature of the Parisian tunnels comes in. It's not just good for brewing beer; it's a source of geothermal energy, says Fieldwork, an architectural firm based in Paris. It can be used to temper temperatures, helping to cool houses in summer and warming them in winter.
One catch for the cataphiles: it also works when the underground cavities are filled up with concrete. So perhaps one day, Paris Underground, fully filled up with concrete, will completely fall off the map, reducing the city's formerly real doppelgänger into an air conditioning unit.
Cool in summer, warm in winter: Paris Underground could become Paris A/C.Credit: Fieldwork
Strange Maps #1083
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Meconium contains a wealth of information.
- A new study finds that the contents of an infants' first stool, known as meconium, can predict if they'll develop allergies with a high degree of accuracy.
- A metabolically diverse meconium, which indicates the initial food source for the gut microbiota, is associated with fewer allergies.
- The research hints at possible early interventions to prevent or treat allergies just after birth.
The prevalence of allergies arising in childhood has increased over the last 50 years, with 30 percent of the human population now having some kind of atopic disease such as eczema, food allergies, or asthma. The cause of this increase is still subject to debate, though it has been associated with a number of factors, including changes to the gut microbiomes of infants.
A new study by Canadian researchers published in Cell Reports Medicine may shed further light on how these allergies develop in children by examining the contents of their first diaper.
The things you do for science
The research team examined the first stool of 100 infants from the CHILD Cohort Study. The first stool of an infant is a thick, green, horrid-looking substance called meconium. It consists of various things that the infant ingests during the second half of gestation. Additionally, it provides not only a snapshot of what the infant was exposed to during that time, but it also reveals what the food sources will be for the initial gut bacteria that colonize the baby's digestive tract.
The content of the meconium was examined and found to contain such varied elements as amino acids, lipids, carbohydrates, and myriad other substances.
A graph of the comparative, summed abundance of different elements in a metabolic pathway after scaling to median abundance of each metabolite. The blue figures are those children without atopy, the yellow ones show the data for those with an atopic condition. Petersen et al.
The authors fed this information into an algorithm that used this data, along with the identities of the bacteria present as well as the baby's overall health, to predict which infants would go on to develop allergies within one year. The algorithm got it right 76 percent of the time.
A way to prevent childhood allergies?
Infants whose meconium had a less diverse metabolic niche the initial microbes to settle in the gut were at the highest risk of developing allergies a year later. Many of these elements were associated with the presence or absence of different bacterial groups in the digestive system of the child, which play an increasingly appreciated role in our overall health and development. The findings were summarized by senior co-author Dr. Brett Finlay:
"Our analysis revealed that newborns who developed allergic sensitization by one year of age had significantly less 'rich' meconium at birth, compared to those who didn't develop allergic sensitization."
The findings could be used to help understand how allergies form and even how to prevent them. Co-author Dr. Stuart Turvey commented on this possibility:
"We know that children with allergies are at the highest risk of also developing asthma. Now we have an opportunity to identify at-risk infants who could benefit from early interventions before they even begin to show signs and symptoms of allergies or asthma later in life."
A model for early childhood allergies
Petersen et al.
As shown above, the authors constructed a model of how they believe metabolites and bacterial diversity help prevent allergies. Increased diversity of metabolic products in the meconium encourage the development of "healthy" families of bacteria, like Peptostreptococcaceae, which in turn promote the development of a healthy and diverse gut microbiome. Ultimately, such diversity decreases the likelihood that a child will develop allergies.