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Orwell Versus Huxley: Economics, Technology, Privacy, and Satire
Richard A. Posner *
Published a half century ago, in a political, economic, and social milieu that seems increasingly remote from the present day, Nineteen Eighty-Four has managed to retain a certain topicality. Once viewed as a political novel, a warning about the totalitarian actuality of the Soviet Union and totalitarian tendencies that Orwell discerned in the West, it is nowadays more often viewed as a warning against the dangers that technocratic modernism poses to privacy and freedom. Many people believe that the relentless advance of science and technology in recent decades have brought us to the very brink of the Orwellian nightmare. I want to assess this view of Orwell's novel and, to gain perspective, to enlarge my canvas to take in another famous English satiric novel from the era that produced Nineteen Eighty-Four. Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, published in 1932, has many parallels to Orwell's novel, published in 1949--and Orwell borrowed extensively from the earlier work (as both works did from Yevgeny Zamyatin's novel We )--yet it is far more technology-intensive and in ways that bring out the limitations of Orwell's social vision. Indeed, the contrast between these two celebrated dystopic novels, notably in their ideas about the relation between sex and privacy, is striking. But relating the two works to technology, and more broadly to what I am calling "technocratic modernism," the kind of outlook that fosters and is fostered by technological progress, is no easy matter, and I need two mediating approaches: that of economics, in relation to technology, and that of literary criticism, in relation to satire, which is the genre of both novels, although I shall argue that Orwell's novel is not only a satire. [End Page 1]
To telegraph my punch, I don't think either novel has much to teach us about what it means to live in an age of technology, though both are fine novels. They don't have much to say about privacy (a particular concern of those who fear technology), although what they do say about it is important--in particular, that a taste for solitude is inimical to totalizing schemes of governance and social organization, whether the utilitarianism of Brave New World or the totalitarianism of Nineteen Eighty-Four, because when people are alone they are more apt to have wayward thoughts about their community than when they are immersed in it. 1 This is not a new idea; it lies behind Jeremy Bentham's proposal for the "Panopticon," a domed prison the cells of which would have no ceilings so that the prisoners could be kept under continuous observation by warders stationed at the top of the dome. Privacy and technology are related in Orwell's novel through the "telescreen," a means of universal surveillance. They are largely separate in Huxley's novel, except insofar as reproductive technology is related to privacy.
I do not mean to rest with making negative points. I shall try to explain what in my view these novels are most importantly about and where they succeed and where they fail. And I shall suggest 2 that it is a mistake to try to mine works of literature for political or economic significance--even when it is political literature.
I imagine that anyone who takes these two novels--both in their different ways distinctly dystopic, if not downright dyspeptic--as commentaries on technology thinks they are critical commentaries. Economics can provide focus, structure, and critique to the widespread fear that technology is a danger to man as well as a boon--indeed a master as well as a servant, so that technological "progress" may be, at the same time and perhaps more fundamentally, retrogressive from the standpoint of civilization. There are five ways in which the economist can help us to see the downside of technological change. 3 I shall call them externality, marginality, rent seeking, interaction effects, and economies of scale and scope...