Book Reviews 2018 - #1 Brave New World Revisited

On the train to Paris – a rare treat – I settled into the latest RSA Journal.  I was especially caught by the article ‘Democracy Distracted’ from James Williams, a man previously unknown to me but who, according to the by-line, is ‘a design ethicist at the University of Oxford, a former Google strategist, a co-founder of Time Well Spent, and winner of the inaugural Nine Dots Prize’.

I am not sure what a design ethicist is, and have never heard of either Time Well Spent or the Nine Dots Prize.  And, naturally, I have resisted the temptation to use Google to find out, just in case that was/is his strategy.

But his article was fantastic; and all the more powerful in light of the Cambridge Analytica revelations. He writes:

“The proliferation of ubiquitous, portable and connected general-purpose computers has enabled this infrastructure of industrialised persuasion to circumvent all other societal systems and open a door directly into our attentional faculties on which it now operates for over a third of our waking lives.  In the hands of a few dozen people now lies the power to shape the attentional habits – the lives – of billions of human beings.   This is not a situation in which the essential political problem involves the management or censorship of speech; the total effect of these systems on our lives is not analogous to that of past communications media.  The effect is much closer to that of a religion: it involves the installation of a worldview, the habituation into certain practices and values, the appeals to tribalistic impulses, the hypnotic abdication of reason and will, and the faith on omnipresent and seemingly omniscient forces that we trust, without a sliver of verification, to be on our side.”

This is a bit of a heavy read – and is also a bit heavy – but is helpfully summarised (or, perhaps, signalled) by the quote with which the article begins:

“In Brave New World Revisited, Aldous Huxley lamented that the defenders of freedom of his time had ‘failed to take into account… man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions’. In the design of digital technology, we are making the same mistake.”

In short, our capacity for distraction may be the fracture that, rather than letting in the light, opens the path to dystopia.

As the train hurtled at 300km/h through the French countryside, this seemed apposite: I was, after all, on my way to a conference about the ‘Great Transition’, a phrase which refers to a shift from the current ‘world system’ to a ‘just and sustainable future’.  The Great Transition, though grounded in the technical disciplines of systems theory, ecological thinking and scenario planning, is essentially a Utopian thought experiment.  It begs important questions: what kind of world would we like to have; and how might we get there?

Utopia, dystopia, big picture thinking in the company of passionate people, and Paris.  This sounds wonderful and is surely enough.

But no!  Paris is also home to the bookshop Shakespeare & Co.  This is somewhere I have wanted to go for a very, very long time - not least because of my passion for all things City Lights – and as part of the treat I had made sure I had enough time to pay the shop a long slow visit.

And guess what I found?

A first edition of Brave New World Revisited by Aldous Huxley, printed in 1959, 28 years after he wrote Brave New World and 10 years after the appearance of Orwell’s 1984.

I open it at random.  Page 73.  Opening sentence:

The survival of democracy depends on the ability of large numbers of people to make realistic choices in the light of adequate information.

Well there we go.  Sixty years on and he’s still bang on the money.

Speaking of money – well, ahem, these treats can sometimes be a little expensive…  Can’t wait to read it though.

Footnote - OK, so now I've read it, and it's fab.  Too many possible quotes and extracts, so I'll limit myself to just one - which I think speaks to consumerism in the round (including the argument about consent in Bad Habits), the whole Cambridge Analytica/Facebook thang (informed consent again) and, at least as if not more important, #MeToo (just what is informed consent?):

"It is perfectly possible for a man [or a woman] to be out of prison, and yet not be free... The nature of psychological compulsion is such that those who act under constraint remain under the impression that they are acting on their own initiative... That [s]he is not free is apparent only to other people." p154


Popular Posts