Culture

The Dystopia We Get May Not Be the One We Dreamed Of

A TSA agent monitors passengers at Salt Lake City International Airport, 2012. (Reuters phooto: George Frey)
Which describes our present predicament, Brave New World or 1984? Perhaps neither.

On February 2, 2017, Tom Nichols at the Federalist wrote an essay titled “We Should Fear Brave New World More Than We Do 1984.” Also on February 2, Andrew Postman published an article in the Guardian headlined “My dad predicted Trump in 1985: It’s not Orwell, he warned, it’s Brave New World.” Postman’s father is the late Neil Postman, author of Amusing Ourselves to Death. John Feffer — “My Novel (Accidentally) Predicted Trump” — joined in at the Huffington Post, writing on February 3: “Novelists don’t write dystopias because they think the dismal future they portray inevitable. 1984, Brave New WorldThe Handmaid’s Tale — these were all calls to arms.” On February 13, the New York Times published “Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World?” Truthdig published a similar article on the same day. Canada’s CBC felt the mood eight days later, publishing “Interested in 1984, Brave New World? Try these modern dystopian books.” John Williams, writing in the New York Times on February 19, had cited the same three dystopian novels (“the chaotic and confounding state of America in 2017 has sent readers scrambling back to the genre’s canonical texts”) in his appreciation of Philip Roth’s The Plot against America. Discussions of the novels have turned up in the past month everywhere from obscure conservative websites to Reddit. Diana B. Henriques, a novelist and New York Times contributor, tweeted: “Brave New World gets it best, so far. But 1984 may be the sequel.” Jim Geraghty weighed in here on 1984 yesterday.

A journalistic subgenre is born. I expect March will bring more of the same.

It is easy to sympathize with the feeling that we are near to or headed toward either Orwell’s horrifying police state or Huxley’s horrifying utopia-dystopia. Asked by The New Yorker whether Trump’s election meant his fiction was bleeding into the real world a little bit, Roth was sober: “Writers here don’t live enslaved in a totalitarian police state, and it would be unwise to act as if we did.” And he is correct: This is, in a way, a golden age of free speech, with improvements in technology outpacing the degradation of liberal culture. You can get Brendan Eich fired for making a political donation, but you cannot stop samizdat from getting out.

It is less of a golden age for other kinds of freedom. The U.S. government under Barack Obama adopted a policy of carrying out assassinations of U.S. citizens abroad — and no one has convincingly ruled out assassinations at home — on the theory that we are in a “war” with Islamic terrorists and that the battlefield is everywhere. (In 20 years, they’ll say: “We have always been at war with Jihadistan.”) Local police, acting at the behest of federal authorities, have been using automated license-plate scanners to monitor U.S. citizens engaged in perfectly legal — indeed, constitutionally protected — activities. The surveillance of public spaces is if not quite comprehensive then something close to it, though not so close as it is in the United Kingdom.

If you want a little 1984, visit an airport, and not only for the TSA intrusions but also for the constant loudspeaker announcements that compliance is mandatory. Imagine trying to explain to an American in 1957 that one day, Soviet-style loudspeakers would repeat automated messages from police agencies warning us about our toothpaste.

Airports are secured as though they were the White House, and the White House is secured as though it were the Kremlin.

RELATED: Let’s Stop Flattering Ourselves by Insisting It’s 1984

If we have a little 1984, we have a little Brave New World, too: As I discussed briefly yesterday on my podcast with Charles C. W. Cooke, a technology company has developed a new robot the purpose of which is to play ping-pong. It not only plays ping-pong — no great accomplishment, that! — but it uses an array of scanners and sophisticated learning processes to understand how skillful a ping-pong player its owner is, adjusting its own level of play accordingly. Remarkable thing. But traffic moves more slowly in many U.S. cities than it did a generation ago.

It is a brave-ish new world at best.

The worlds of the two great dystopian novels intersect at unexpected points.

The development of technology has been a very, very good thing for the world — I, for one, welcome our new ping-pong-playing overlords — but it also has drawbacks that manifest themselves in funny ways. GPS is very useful — I rely on it almost every day, I am sure — but it also has become a substitute for knowing one’s way around. Whereas London taxi drivers have “the Knowledge,” New York taxi drivers, a great number of whom are very recent immigrants, are given a cell phone and the medallion owners’ best wishes. For some years, I lived in an impossible-to-miss building immediately adjacent to City Hall, and the majority of taxi drivers would simply give me a blank stare when I gave them my address.

The technology that was supposed to free up our minds for the pursuits of higher pleasures has indeed freed up our minds — but we take over from there. If, as seems likely, we develop really good autonomous vehicles at about the same time we develop really good virtual-reality porn, we’ll lose an entire generation of young men. They’ll never notice when the TSA moves out from the airports onto the sidewalks.

The worlds of the two great dystopian novels intersect at unexpected points. For years, I resisted demands to give fingerprints for this or that reason, sometimes going to great lengths to avoid doing so. Now, I happily use my fingerprint to purchase Tom Waits albums from the Apple Store.

RELATED: The True Lessons of 1984

And maybe it is to Waits, rather than Orwell or Huxley, that we should look for wisdom on our current predicament. On Thursday, the New York Times published a wonderful series of interviews featuring Waits, Beck, and Kendrick Lamar, each speaking at some length on the subject of writing songs. Or approximately that: Waits, as is his habit, told a funny and poignant story that is true (and may even have happened) about his (purported) career as a fireman in his youth. After all the drills and practice, he was ready for something dramatic, and finally got called to his first fire. The air, he says, was full of the familiar smell of fried chicken: His squad had been called to a burning chicken farm, and Waits describes, in his poetic way, the poignant contrast between the couple watching their home and livelihood go up in literal flames while Waits and his fellow fireman made mad and hilarious efforts to hose down flaming chickens.

“It was not the fire I dreamed of,” he said. “It was the fire I got.”