Software and Computer Engineering

Reading Notes for "Brave New World" (1932), by Aldous Huxley

Originally published in 1932, in the period between World War I (1914-1918) and World War II (1939-1945), this classic scientific fiction book describes a dystopian world where peace and happiness is kept through scientific means of mass-producing engineered humans, psychological conditioning, a societal caste system, and a emotion-nullifying drug called “soma”.

The dystopia finds peace and stability in abolishing all of these sources of potential confusion and discomfort: since all the individuals are born artificially, there are no parents or families; each caste member is pre-conditioned to be happy to be born into their own caste and to fill in the role that is expected of them; leisure time is filled with meaningless mass-appeal activities designed to fill time and strengthen a sense of community; and any other remaining negative sensation can be banished with the readily available drug.

I'm positively surprised about how many topics the author tackles: the roles of the family and relationships as the units of societal cohesion; and the roles of religion and artistic beauty in one's own human experience and sense of meaning.

The author refers to the Ford T-Model and the assembly line means of production as being a societal shift (that today we take for granted -- I bet you can point out a dozen consumer goods just in your field of view right now), and hypothesizes what would it mean for a society to apply the same mass-production for humans. Of course we don't see that for ethical reasons, but we're currently treading a similar path manufacturing did, but in knowledge fields.

The assembly line ultimately displaced the artisanal crafts for worldwide consumer goods. I wonder if we will see the same happen for information and entertainment given the recent advances in LLMs (Large Language Models) and other forms of computer-driven knowledge work that previously could only be “artisanally made” by a human artist.

The book also depicts a constant repetition of ready-made phrases -- in the book, instilled from birth -- taken as “little tidbits of truth”, but that lead to societal-conforming behavior. In seeing that, I wonder how much passed-down knowledge we take for granted, not because we aren't allowed to question it, but just because we don't think of questioning it. In addition to that, “sloganification” also tends to discourage deeper analysis into nuanced issues by providing and easy mental “shortcut”.

As the antagonistic figure of the Society Controller puts it: “The world's stable now. People are happy: they get what they want, and never want what they can't”. In contrast, mass media today seems to thrive in making our society unhappy: wanting more of what we doesn't have, in addition to fearful, mistrustful and polarized.

Finally, the book touches on psychoactive drugs as a mean of regulating negative emotions -- which is a surprisingly current societal issue still. A character refuses to take “soma” on the grounds of “I'm claiming the right to be unhappy”. Obviously not to the same extent as an actual drug, but I wonder if we reaching out for a smartphone in the slight hint of boredom has some similar numbing or mindless effect. Should we “claim the right to be bored” as a constructive experience?