Creating a dystopia?

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During recent months, images of children with smartphones and tablets have become increasingly common across media. Pictures of an infant, not yet able to stand, grappling with an iPhone, or a wobbling toddler clinging to an iPad, have prompted headlines warning of a ‘Brave New World’. Articles raise the sceptre of a coming dystopia because our kids are being ruined by technology. Handhelds are the new opiates that enslave children and dull their capacity to think. Kids vegetate as they waste hours playing mind-numbing and trivial games. So the arguments run.

But these arguments are wrong. They are wrong, because inequity is at the heart of any ‘brave new world’ (in the modern sense of the analogy). Such dystopias rely on centralised power, an elite, and the passivity of their people.

Mobile smartphone and tablet technology threatens these. Like the emergence of printing in the fifteenth century, digital technology is revolutionary, especially in education, because it puts power into people’s hands (and in this case children’s); it disperses knowledge. In a nutshell, it democratises information, learning and ideas, making them widely available—something that can be very unsettling for a powerful, controlling, centralised regime.

Let’s have a closer look at this. Firstly, the modern expression ‘brave new world’ isn’t all that new. Aldous Huxley made it popular, using it as the title for his 1932 novel. But the phrase came from an earlier play by William Shakespeare, ‘The Tempest’.

Secondly, when Miranda, a character in the Tempest, utters the phrase it is a positive exclamation. The overriding emotion it expresses is wonder—a flushed acknowledgement of creaturely beauty and of human potential. It speaks of future promise—of an exciting, beautiful, open-for-exploration world.

In contrast, the ‘brave new world’ of Huxley’s novel is a tragic one, where individuality and human dignity are eradicated by an all-powerful state that employs five main strategies to achieve its ends. Huxley’s use of the phrase ‘brave new world’ is heartbreakingly ironic.

The key point? If we use the phrase ‘brave new world’ in the sense that Huxley did (as opposed to Shakespeare/Miranda), then we are speaking about a society that is comprehensively manipulated by a very ‘clever’ government. We are not talking about science or technology disparagingly, but a centralising power that tightly controls these. Indeed, the idea of children having access to digital technology and the information it offers is a nightmare to such a power. So the association of ‘Brave New World’ with kids and technology is wrong and it is misleading.

The term ‘clever’ is important. The government in Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ has learned one thing and taken it to heart. In the end you cannot control people through brute force and physical coercion; they will always strive to free themselves and fight for their independence. Therefore in order to gain control over society and people, clever and softer tactics need to be developed.

What are these tactics, and what role did science and technology play?

To begin with, in order to control society and to create the desired form of ‘stability’, the government of Huxley’s dystopia centralises and virtually monopolizes birth. It assumes responsibility for human reproduction, practising eugenics, birth control and forced sterilization (actions that have moved beyond fiction into history and the present day).

Secondly, not only does the government genetically engineer babies, ensuring that some will have low IQs while others high ones, it also practises mental reprogramming (hypnopaedia), brainwashing infants and children from an early age to accept and enjoy the roles assigned to them in society. The reprogramming aims to ensure people see social inequality as normative and desirable. Any notion that someone, who, for example, collects garbage, can change their social status through hard work and feedback to become the president of a business is expunged. Put simply, hypnopaedia ensures ‘one believes things because one has been conditioned to believe them.’

Of the five types of people (A-E) the government produces, A-type people number among the elite. They run things.

If eugenics and mental reprogramming fail to produce a model citizen (one who knows his or her place in society and who unquestioningly meets its expectations), then the government has two further means at its disposal in order to achieve its ends. Sex and drugs. It encourages people to have as much sex as possible with as many people as possible—not because pleasure is something to be valued, but for the reason that it distracts people and makes it less likely they will form any real bonds of affection. One of the principal aims of a brave new world sort of leadership is to stop people deeply relating and thinking. Thinking leads to an exchange of ideas, and we all know ideas are dangerous. So the government instigates a magnified sexual revolution to stupefy and enslave its citizens through sensual pleasure. It judges that ‘most men and women will grow up to love their servitude and will never dream of revolution.’

This stupefaction is enhanced by designer drugs that produce a constant high, but once again crush an individual’s capacity for clear thought. Keep them happy, keep them slightly zoned out, and they will be more easily governed.

One last major means of control employed by the government in ‘Brave New World’ is consumption. Not only is there rampant sexual consumption and narcotic addiction, there is also the pre-programmed lust for more and more consumer goods. From childhood, through hypnopaedia, people are taught to fill their lives with consumption—with the desire, hope, excitement and even disappointment that surrounds new things. Once again, the political tactic is distraction. The more people are caught up with material things, in getting and spending, the less time they have for thinking (or so the theory goes).

It should be obvious by now that brave new world governments or regimes (and they exist today) fear any form of individualism or civil liberty—especially freedom of expression. They do what they can to snuff them out. The more cynical among these regimes try to buy off their citizens through various pleasures; others that are unable to do this use brute force and terror. But freedom of conscience, thought and expression terrifies them.

A key observation for Huxley therefore revolves around the significance of reading. And also information. Both lead to conversation, or at the very least stimulate thought. Thought leads to ideas. And ideas lead to action. Something that might threaten the status quo.

So, it is hardly surprising that Huxley, and George Orwell writing in another dystopian novel ‘1984’, regard language as critical to human formation and powerfully creative societies. In both novels, controlling ‘big brother’ governments seek to limit language. Because ‘words can be like X-rays if you use them properly—they’ll go through anything. You read and you’re pierced.’

In 1984 new editions of dictionaries decrease the number of words available to the population. They limit peoples’ vocabulary to the point where thought in itself becomes predictable and a mere repetition of politically manipulated platitudes.

The above comments on Huxley’s presentation of the power and significance of language, of the individual (and not the crowd which is blind and unthinking), of reading, personal reflection, the exchange of ideas, and freedom of expression, are especially relevant to any comparison we make when we speak about kids and technology. It is certainly possible to use technology as a sop, to create a sort of mind-numbing pleasure centre, but Huxley is making a much more subtle observation about the place of science and technology. He is suggesting to his readers that science is one form of epistemology (a way of knowing) that powerfully renders truth. Science is concerned with truth, degrees of certainty and falsehood. Technology springs in consequence of science, and its application. The outworking of a dystopia for Huxley comes when a government decides its own interests are more important than the pursuit of truth, and then restricts scientific pursuit and takes control of technology. The government of ‘Brave New World’ does both. It believes ‘great is truth, but still greater, from a practical point of view, is silence about truth.’

Why does this matter? Because issues of power, control, freedom, individual rights, freedom of association, and the free commerce of ideas are as important today as they were in the 1930s and 40s. Too many military-political forces, governments and regimes actively undermine these freedoms, affecting tens of millions of lives. The danger—the ‘brave new world’ factor—is not kids playing with smartphones and tablets; it is an overweening governing power. And contrary to claims otherwise, one of the most promising instruments we possess in tackling such a power—and inequity, elitism, injustice and restrictions on civil liberties—is digital technology. That small device in a child’s hand can record what it sees and hears, as well as truly opening up new worlds of information and learning. It also has the potential to overthrow the tyranny of dispirited classrooms, where tedium, poor knowledge of subject matter and disruptive behaviour, threaten to deaden a generation of children—perhaps as much as anything found in Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’.

Take away points: Quite a chunk of literature and reporting plays the devil’s advocate, painting a bleak picture of mobile, handheld and digital technology, and the harmful effects it has on children. It suggests that kids that play, for instance, Minecraft, Planets Cubed, or Tug, become gaming addicts and dumbed-down. There are games that are purely entertaining, and there might well be dangers in obsessive gaming, but there is a multitude of games, apps and programmes that are thought provoking, informative and educational. Moreover, on a political level, not only does digital technology have the capacity to instantly and widely disseminate information and learning, it can expose injustice and corruption—which is why many, many people are afraid of it. It is not an enemy to human development or liberty (a brave new world scenario); properly conceived, it is a friend. As an annex of science, as the pursuit of truth, it has tremendous value.

Research: Bugs and Buttons: Bugs and Buttons

And if Math isn’t your thing, and you are looking for something a little more advanced: Wordflex

Politically: The Role Played By Social Media In Political Participation And Electoral Campaigns: Social Media Power

And Forbes chasing the same question in a different landscape: Social Media Impact

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Comments

  1. What about the power given to multinationals who own technology? Can civil society be constricted by the grow of technology held by large monopolies? I seems to me governments will be disempowered by technology but these companies only accountable to shareholders will retain control

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    • Thank you, Stephen, a delight to hear form you and to read your question. I think institutions can certainly work against civil society, businesses being no exception, so what becomes significant is the level of accountability within an institution, and presumably externally, too (answering to a higher court?). I think shareholders hold management to account, not only for the way they handle the capital entrusted to them, but also for the goods they produce. Here, in AU, shareholders have jettisoned questionable companies and their offerings. I assume this is so in NZ. To this extent, I see multinationals as still being held accountable in a manner that some ‘governments’ are not. I am not sure if governments will be disempowered by technology or kept honest. And ironically, the same might be true of multinationals, too.

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  2. What are your thoughts then on the proposed international court as part of the Transpacific partnerships? (It has been suggested that governments could be sued by multi nationals for laws effecting trade) Could this lead technology companies to becoming bigger stakeholders in our children’s education? I have been thinking about this as I have be making use of cloud based solutions in the class room for learning management systems. I definitely agree governments have a very low bar for accountability. One plus I see for the technology is a higher level of accountability for teachers. This will have to be respected of course. I hope what your suggesting comes to pass.

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