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Our soma, our brave new world

Frequent reading of The SUN’s Letters to the Editor section exposes us to a phenomenon that advances at a steady pace — here and elsewhere. In that section, and in comments made in other publications and on Internet sites, writers sound the alarm: Our demise is near, we are victims of vast government plots. The left, the right, the feds, local officials are out to enslave us, deprive us of our freedoms, rob us of our riches, destroy the American way of life.

We believe these comments obscure something more ominous than the typical, often fanciful bugbears favored by so many writers. Most everyday conspiracy theorists are not only unaware of a more substantial threat, but are, in fact, fed by it. We all might, indeed, become captives, but not initially to government. Rather, we will likely be held captive by the products and processes born of our habits and desires.

In an article written for The Guardian, John Naughton notes his belief that Aldous Huxley, rather than George Orwell, has more to teach us about our future. Naughton deems Huxley, “the prophet of our brave new digital dystopia.” A dystopia, for those who do not know, is a society or community that is oppressive — a frightening place in which the inhabitants are not treated fairly, the opposite of a utopia.

Naughton argues that Huxley trumps Orwell regarding the contemporary reality in that Orwell, in particular in “1984,” shows us as victims of the things we fear. Refer here to those letter writers who sound the alarm about the intrusion of government, about state oppression and surveillance.

Huxley, on the other hand, in “Brave New World” sees us, as Naughton states, as victims of what we crave. Our servitude is conceived and controlled not by some monstrous all-powerful state and its apparatus, but by those who dispense what we first enjoy, then find ourselves addicted to.

What we have to fear first is not an oppressive state on the model of that conceived by a Stalin or Hitler, but rather a digital empire, mining our personal information as we move effortlessly and entertained on its virtual terrain. If there is anything capable of crafting a true intrusion into a dialed-in, private life, it is an operation like Facebook or Google. And the more we are entranced and active in their world, the tighter the claw grips.

Further, we are apt to be devalued in another way in this digital empire. The computer, the phone, the tablet, the television hold a growing number of us passive captives. In this domain, we are tracked in terms of our preferences, then are fed what we obviously want, commercially, culturally, intellectually. All dine at a table purposefully set in accord with their dominant tastes. As Naughton writes, we have failed, “… to notice that our runaway infatuation with the sleek toys produced by the likes of Apple and Samsung — allied to our apparently insatiable appetite for Facebook, Google and other companies that provide us with ‘free’ services in exchange for the intimate details of our daily lives might well be as powerful a narcotic as soma …”

We are rapidly becoming passive slaves to a digital master. We sit transfixed in front of televisions and computer screens, ingesting our soma — data, carefully prepared for us by corporate interests — supping on information that satisfies us while requiring no verification, no legitimacy beyond the fact that it harmonizes with our existing notions, our comfortable myths.

This is our brave new world.

Karl Isberg

This story was posted on December 2, 2013.