Courtesy of Harper Perennial.

November 27, 2023

Modern Soma

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Reach into your pocket and let the height of technology take you far away from the world before you. Enjoy the distraction it gives you: a familiar feeling of warmth and comfort. But is this an act of freedom or the relinquishing of such? I’m referring, of course, to soma. 

Soma is the instant gratification drug that has desensitized society in Aldous Huxley’s 1932 Brave New World. But 92 years later, this drug sounds awfully familiar — it’s just been going by different names: phones, the Internet, the virtual world. I fear how similar our dissociative societies are, as Huxley’s world blurs into our own. Is his world a road map for the journey we are about to begin, or a warning that will help us avoid an artless, passionless society where we are enslaved to instant gratification technology? Or as Ebenezer Scrooge once asked, “Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?” 

Brave New World depicts a bleak society inside the totalitarian World State. Every human has a specialized job and has been genetically engineered to work without resistance. Every aspect of life is manipulated by the World State, with Mustapha Mond being the World Controller of Western Europe. Why then do the citizens not revolt against this oppressive lifestyle? Provided to every citizen are capsules of soma. You know what soma does. 

Every uncomfortable situation, awkward interaction or moment of boredom — soma gets rid of them all. Just reach into your pocket and feel the metaphysical weight of it. It’s what has silenced commuter trains, isolated untold numbers of people and taken away the pressure that comes with free-thinking. And why does society accept this lobotomized form of existence? Mustapha Mond, World Controller extraordinaire, answers this saying, “Anything for a quiet life.” 

As much as people think they want freedom and independence, what they want more is to be free of these responsibilities. As soma does this for the citizens of the World State, a never-ending supply of entertainment and content via the Internet does this for the world today. Given the freedom and independence to do anything at all, we let curated content and algorithmic models guide our downtime. Unlike soma, these devices have the possibility to assist us as we stand at the frontiers of new knowledge. As we look out into the unknown, we will have more than just ourselves to rely on. The problem is not the devices, but how we integrate them into society. The biggest shared space of the Internet is social media. It is a circular model which allows us to play the part of performer and audience. We can distract ourselves from the reality that we are neither the performer nor the audience we pretend to be. As Kurt Vonnegut aptly writes in Mother Night, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” 

Mustapha Mond says, “People never are alone now…we make them hate solitude; and we arrange their lives so that it’s almost impossible for them ever to have it.” I fear this is what our technology is most likely pushing us toward. I think more concerning than escaping scenarios of discomfort is escaping those of boredom. Will we condition ourselves to reach for stimulation every time we are met with a quiet moment? I think it has already happened. Future generations will accept this new normalcy. We must consider questions they will ask us when all they have known is the virtual world alongside reality. Is there merit to boredom? With an oversaturation of endless content that is algorithmically tailored to their interests, how do we show the value of less instantaneous pursuits? So far our only response seems to be, “Anything for a quiet life.”

In the World State, there are a few individuals living soma-free and not under the control of the regime. These are the revolutionaries: the rebels, scientists, artists or anyone who could not help but ask questions and cause instability in the perfectly stable world. They are banished to islands around the globe. What is seen by many as punishment turns out to be a community for those dissatisfied by their current environment. 

Early in the novel, a propaganda writer mentions to his friend that “words can be like X-rays, if you use them properly — they’ll go through anything. You read and you’re pierced.” In those words I feel Huxley most directly coming through the pages — breaking the fourth wall, telling the reader “you read” and “you’re pierced” and hoping that his words are the X-rays he imagines them to be. For a reader in need, deliberate words can not only be X-rays into themselves, but also into the world around them. 

No matter how much we commercialize the minds of our children and sell their attention for algorithmic perfection, there is something unattainable in endless entertainment that only revolutionary science and art can provide. They seem to capture our curiosity and desire in ways technology has not yet replicated. It’s that inarticulable feeling of something missing, that after hours of watching content we are still left dissatisfied, knowing that what we truly want is just a little bit more than what the virtual world can provide. 

Luke Dennis is a freshman in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].