Our real dystopian future is in Brave New World and Infinite Jest
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella set a high bar for developers at the company’s annual Build conference last week with a slightly off-putting challenge: don’t let your programs — and by extension, our technology — turn human society into a subservient mass of soulless drones.
“I do believe it’s up to us to ensure that some of the more dystopian scenarios don’t come true,” Nadella said, flanked by a backdrop of the book jacket illustrations from George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, two of the 20th century’s most well-known works of fiction.
Even if you’re unfamiliar with the term itself, you know (and probably love) countless examples of dystopian media. Typically, the genre imagines a future society as a painful, bleak, and soul-crushing hellscape.
The go-to examples for most people these days, 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, are characterized by complete subservience to a centralized entity like the government or, more broadly, the patriarchy. Toss some extra focus on tech into the mix, and you’re looking at works where AI rises up and takes control like The Matrix or The Terminator.
Given the current political climate, that authoritarianism verging on totalitarianism isn’t so hard to imagine. Comparing today’s society to Orwell’s Big Brother-controlled world was a hot trend for takes as Trump took office, and readers bought out the book for insight into what we could be facing under the administration.
In my opinion, everyone’s reading the wrong books. To really get a glimpse of how screwed we might be in the future, turn to the other work Nadella referenced, Brave New World. Then, for some extra dystopian insight, pick up a 1,079 page doorstopper (complete with footnotes) for some light reading, David Foster Wallace (DFW)’s Infinite Jest.
In my opinion, everyone’s reading the wrong books.
Both of the works send the same message at their core: human beings can and will sacrifice just about everything in our pursuit of pleasure if we’re not careful stewards of our consumption — something our increasingly screen-focused existence has pushed to unprecedented levels.
Brave New World lays the groundwork for this bleak vision of our future, then Infinite Jest fills in the blanks with a better understanding of modern technology.
Huxley’s year 2540 World State society has whiffs of 1984‘s authoritarianism and government control through strictly-monitored class distinctions and mental conditioning, but people are largely held in check by soma, a future drug engineered to tamp down emotion and streamline every experience to focus on pleasure.
In Infinite Jest, the focus on government control takes a backseat to a fixation on technology, as all of the book’s disparate plot points revolve around the pursuit of “the Entertainment,” a film cartridge that is so intensely pleasurable that everyone who sees it wants nothing else in the world, watching it until they die in front of the screen.
We’re already getting there
This pleasure-fueled existence isn’t so speculative — in some ways, we’re knee deep in it already through the ways we engage with our tech. Research shows that part of our current smartphone fixation stems from our pursuit of biological pleasure hits: every notification comes with a rush of dopamine, according to Psychology Today.
DFW’s addiction on entertainments is most obvious in how we consume TV in the age of streaming. We’re not quite at the point where we’re going to sit watching Netflix until we’re dead, but we’re spending a staggering amount of time binging peak TV, shunning other responsibilities and social engagements to interface with the screen.
With those factors in mind, lets get back to Nadella’s concerns.
“Neither of these futures is something that we want,” he told the developers in the Build audience last week. “So the question is: What are we going to do? What are the practical ways we can make progress?”
If we use the cautionary fictional tales at our disposal, unplugging and cutting our screen time could be the solution. Once we’re free from the shackles of our own dopamine drives and screen addictions, we can focus on other dystopian issues, like staving off the totalitarian despots and killer robots.