During the first half of the twentieth century, many books were written which warned about the dangers of giving the state control over new and powerful technologies. The nightmare visions of society these books conjured up have left an indelible mark upon our collective consciousness and subsequent social and historical development.
George Orwell’s 1984, and Aldoux Huxley’s Brave New World, are regarded by many to be the two most influential works in this genre. The two novels describe a dystopia in which an all-powerful state controls and manipulates the behaviour and actions of its people in order to preserve its own power and stability and to keep the masses servile and under control. Orwell’s 1984 is, no doubt, the better known of the two. Words like “Orwellian” and “Big Brother” have even entered our lexicon as synonyms for abusive or totalitarian societies and all-controlling, surveillance states – such is the impact the book has had, both culturally and politically. That said, the two depictions of dystopia, the Orwellian and Huxleyan, are quite distinct and their warnings very different.
Orwell’s dystopia warned about a repressive surveillance society where every thought and conversation was monitored and dissent was brutally punished. Huxley’s warned about society held captive to gross consumption and seduced by sensual gratification, political theatre and trivial amusement. So whilst society is kept entertained, political power would grow unchecked as people embraced their own oppression.
Orwell, as Neil Postman says in Amusing Ourselves to Death, warns of a world in which books were banned. Huxley, Postman noted, warns of a world where no one wants to read books because of being distracted by trivial pursuits and mindless pleasures.
Orwell warns about those who would deprive us of information. Huxley warns about those who would feed us too much information, so that truth becomes lost in a sea of triviality and minds made passive with mediocrity.
Orwell warns of a society where ideas are brutaly controlled and truths manipulated. Huxley warns of a society where a population, preoccupied with trivial gossip or news, no longer cared about truth.
Orwell warns we would all be watched by Big Brother. Huxley warns that we would all be watching Big Brother.
Orwell warned we would be controlled by inflicting pain. Huxley warns we would be controlled by inflicting pleasure.
Orwell warned we would be frightened into submission. Huxley warned we would be seduced into submission.
Passionate discussions still abound as to whether we are closer to being an Orwellian society or a Huxleyan one? Whether the state is growing increasingly Orwellian, and society ever more Huxleyan? Whether we are now in the grip of a Huxleyan dystopia which will eventually morph into an Orwellian one? And while we should continue to be vigilant against state tyranny and totalitarianism, their presence or approach tend to be quite conspicuous. But, as Huxley remarks in Brave New World Revisited, we may be ever alert to oppose a coercive regime, but must not fail ‘to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distraction.’
The Qur’an speaks against the tyranny of the rich and the powerful in many passages. Yet because of the subtlety of its deception, the Qur’an places greater emphasis on the distraction and subjugation brought about by over-indulging in worldly comforts: The life of this world is nothing but play and distraction. But the Hereafter is better for those who fear God. Have you no sense? [6:32] So although both kinds of subjugation are nasty – the Orwellian type and the Huxleyan – it would seem to be a case of: ‘Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.’