Brave New World Revisited (again)

Forget about Big Brother for a moment, if that’s possible. There are other things to worry about.

By now, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World should have eclipsed George Orwell’s 1984 as the novel which best describes the corrupting influence of science and technology. Both books contain a vision

of “”the future”” where governments are essentially totalitarian and science and technology have become ways to segregate and enslave the population. The Orwellian concept of “”Big Brother”” has become a symbol of evil as our culture moves towards ever more invasive security measures. Despite its foreshadowing of biotechnology, the characters in Brave New World never resonated as deeply, and as the BIO 2002 conference gets underway this week in Toronto, it might be a good time to consider why.

The two books touch on some similar themes, but where Brave New World is science fiction, I’d argue 1984 is not. Most of the technology devices used in Orwell’s story — a flying machine, large projector screens — were already invented when he wrote it. Also, Orwell originally wanted to call his novel 1948; it was his publishers who insisted on 1984. In contrast, Huxley’s novel depicts a scientific nightmare that only now seems technically conceivable. Genetic engineering has allowed the government to create clones based on the DNA of twins. Cell structure and conditioning are used to create and maintain the various classes of society, where Alphas have the upper class jobs and Betas, Gammas and Deltas make up the rest of the food chain.

I first read both books when I was in high school. They are frequently paired for a study unit in English classes, where students yearning to break free of adolescent restrictions often identify with Big Brother, both at home with their parents and at school with their teachers. (These are the same people who will later resent e-mail monitoring filters installed by IT managers when they enter the workforce.) Rereading it this weekend, I was struck by how exaggerated and over the top it seemed. Though darker than satire, these sorts of books don’t always age well because they often work so hard to make sure readers appreciate the irony and significance of every detail. In Brave New World, technology zealots have turned Henry Ford into a god; the book is set in the year AF (“”After Ford””) 645 and characters frequently make the “”sign of the T”” when they bless themselves (GET IT? the author seems to scream. We get it). The novel was published in 1946. You can imagine who would replace Ford now.

It’s actually fun to imagine some of the scientific techniques applied to today’s culture. Delta children, for instance, are bred to hate flowers and books, the better to settle down to their more mundane factory work. Consider technology companies conditioning us with a tolerance for frequent PC crashes, or genetically encoding all the passwords we’re going to need when we’re grown up.

If they don’t stand up as classic works of literature, Brave New World and 1984 are great fear mongers, in the best sense of that term. They ask us to create checks and balances as we push for greater innovation through technology. Huxley later wrote a nonfiction book, Brave New World Revisited, where he examined the topics the book described, and he was certain as ever that we were headed for disaster. Neither author could be aware, of course, of the counter-activity that has developed since, like the BioJustice/BioDiversity conference which is raising ethical questions alongside the more market-driven BIO 2002.

Perhaps 1984 passed the test of time because Orwell gave us a villain in Big Brother we could fight off. In Brave New World, the situation seems doomed from the start. How can you fight your own genetic makeup? Similarly, IT managers could feel far less involved in biotechnology than security issues — what do we know about cloning, diseases, genetic engineering? — but that would be a mistake. Though the word is never used, the laboratories of Brave New World are certainly driven by information contained in massive databases. There are IT managers throughout this book (though whether they are Alphas, Betas or something else is unclear). To bring more immediacy to the discussion, on Monday the Interoperable Informatics Infrastructure Consortium (I3C) unveiled a simplified approach to identifying data items stored inmultiple, distributed data stores, what it calls a “”logical naming convention”” for biological data.

If technology professionals have slowly realized their role in the privacy debate, they should similarly be aware of their place in establishing and maintaining the networks that will make biotechnology possible. That’s why we need to look past the test tubes and terabytes to reconsider our notions of progress as the breakthroughs take place. The challenges of this Brave New World must be shared by us all.

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