The Stan Iverson
Memorial Library & Anarchist Archives
Releasing the Tiger’s Tail: Rejecting Technology in Brave New World and Mad Max 3.
Humans are inquisitive and industrious, and their scientific progress is usually linked with advancing civilization. In the case of technological dystopias, uncontrolled progress is regarded as a sort of tumor, spawning effects that are harmful to either the social organism, or, more abstractly, "human nature." But to reject a possibly promising technological product or scientific approach carries with it problems that can be most damaging to humanity, collectively and individually. A distinction must be drawn between science or technology that is actually rejected, and that which is simply outmoded: for example, the development of more sophisticated ironworking techniques does not make blacksmithing a dangerous or subversive craft, nor are we likely to hear of a revolution led by militant Ptolemaic astronomers. But the same is not true for new technologies that are developed, then subsequently rejected as being unsuitable for human use. The fact that technologies exist at all is testimony to the fact that someone spent considerable time developing or extending them. Somebody regarded them as being worth the effort. Invention is a one-way process, and attempting to un-invent or suppress a technology often leads to social upheaval, repression, and stagnation. In eschatological or technologically dystopian fiction, cultures having less technology than our present society possesses are invariably treated as having lost something, or as being less civilized. To oppose the products of technology is to create an extremely powerful enemy out of human curiosity and creativity. In Frankenstein, for example, the creature begins life as gentle, helpful being, and his only desire is for love. After he is rejected by Dr. Frankenstein, he becomes a destructive monster. He is denied love, and a place in society, and so he rebels against a world which, having created him, then provides no place for him. #1.
This theme can be seen in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The book is a satire of the ideas of progress in the 1930s, but, as well as the danger in uncontrolled science, the book also demonstrates the danger of its rejection. Brave New World begins, appropriately, in the place of communal birth, the Central London Hatchery. The year is 632 AF (After Ford). The director of the centre shows a group of students around the centre, and explains to them the intricacies of cloning, (Bokanovsky’s Process). This ability to produce large numbers of genetically identical people is explained as "one of the major instruments of social stability", and the director proceeds to explain the process of artificially-produced people to the students. In order to ensure stability, the state has abolished sources of strong feeling, and divided the population into castes: Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas and Epsilons. All are "decanted" and raised in State institutions, and all are conditioned to like performing certain tasks, with the Alphas performing the most intellectual work, and the Epsilons the most menial. Since, as a result of chemical and psychological manipulation, each caste enjoys performing the work it is allotted, there is virtually no anger towards society - no ambition, no struggle, and no conflicting passions or loyalties. Happiness is mandatory. This entails the abolition of most possible sources of unhappiness - morals, politics, religion, the family - all are unknown. The founding principle of the society is that everybody works exclusively for the state, and ignores individuality. When reality intrudes, in place of physically destructive drugs or religion, there is the drug called Soma, which provides "a holiday from reality whenever you feel like it, and [one can] come back without so much as a headache or a mythology." #2.
Bernard Marx, an Alpha-plus intellectual who is physically different from his counterparts, begins to think disturbingly individual thoughts, and travels with Lenina Crowne to the wild and uncivilized "Savage Reservation." They encounter Linda, a Beta-minus who became stranded in the reservation many years ago, and reverted to normal biological reproduction. They also meet her son, John. John has learned about the Fordian civilization from his mother (an obscene, uncivilized term), and about humanity from a volume of Shakespeare’s works. But when Bernard takes John with him into civilization, John is horrified by the lack of human freedoms, by the lack of love and individuality, by the lack of dignity of humanity. The residents of civilization, conversely, are amused by the Savage’s quaint ways and mystified by his apparent inability to enjoy the stability and comfort offered by society and soma. John rapidly becomes confused by the society: his notion of romantic love on one hand, and the society’s insistence on total sexual freedom on the other: "Everyone belongs to everyone else." Equally, society’s casual treatment of death is incomprehensible to him: "Every tot spends two mornings a week in a Hospital for the Dying. All the best toys are kept there, and they get chocolate cream on death days. They learn to take dying as a matter of course." #3. This does not sit well with John’s first hand experiences of the unpleasantness of death, gained in the primitive reservation. John tries to rally a group of Delta workers to resist the soma, and fight for freedom, but they are not capable of understanding freedom, and they riot. John is arrested, and taken to meet Mustapha Mond, one of ten World Controllers, leaders of the society.
There follows a detailed defence of the Fordian civilization by Mond, to John’s distress. John points out that there is no God in the Brave New World - Mond’s response is that "God isn’t compatible with machinery and scientific medicine and universal happiness. You must make your choice. Our society has chosen machinery and medicine and happiness." #4. John returns that he wants the freedom to experience God, and all the unhappiness that goes with it "I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin." #5. John is not permitted to go into exile from the society with Marx, and join other potentially subversive social deviants, but does manage to escape into isolation, living in a lighthouse, hunting his own food, and maintaining an independent lifestyle. However, he is unable to sustain his isolation and opposition - he is visited by curiosity-seekers from the society, and, in despair at his inability to avoid joining in their utopian madness, commits suicide.
Huxley, of course, satirizes the thirties ideals of scientific progress and industrialization intended to bring about utopia, specifically the ideas of H.G. Wells. William Matter describes this utopia so envisioned by Huxley (and Orwell and Zamyatin) as "a distasteful extension of a tradition too heavily laden with authoritarian principles and unrealistic trust in the perfectibility of mankind." #6. Matter quotes from Wells’s A Modern Utopia to show this trust in scientific progress:
However, the place of science and technology in Brave New World is open to question. Certainly the Bokanovsky procedure seems grisly, and the society of unvarying stability, in which commercial and scientific activity may flourish unhindered is nightmarish. But the lack of science is not lauded either - the reservation is a most unpleasant place, as can be noted by the lice in John’s hair and the terrible condition Linda is in when she returns to civilization. There are many attacks on scientific and technological progress, from the satirical alteration of "Our Lord" to "Our Ford", the changing of the sign of the cross to the sign of the model-T, right through to direct and extremely negative characterizations of military science:
Huxley thus makes science an accomplice to the inhuman society of Brave New World. But it does not enjoy an unprecedented reign, and is not portrayed as unreservedly evil. In a supreme irony, Mustapha Mond is himself a trained scientist, and is only a World Controller because he agreed to give up his potentially subversive science, and serve social happiness rather than truth. Mond draws a distinction between the kind of science that solves problems of production, and ensures stability, and "real" science that seeks to point out truth without regard to the existing social order:
Huxley, while he is severely critical of the technology used in Brave New World, recognizes its chimerical nature, and he is mainly critical of the uses to which it is put. William Matter points out that "Science and mechanization are the focal points of [Huxley’s] attack upon Wells, but it is important to note that Huxley is also reacting to a lengthy tradition in utopian thought" which links industrialization and scientific advance to the creation of Utopia, and traverses such works as Campanella’s The City of the Sun, Valentin Andreae’s Christianopolis, Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis and H G. Wells’s A Modern Utopia. All these works, Matter explains, create ideal societies with the help of technology which the writers felt were actually capable of realization. #13. Matter also states that "The reality of utopia, to Huxley, is appalling. In Brave New World he attacks the classical view of the ideal commonwealth, and denounces ‘the horror of the Wellsian Utopia.’ " Technology is merely the means by which these utopianists enforce their deterministic strategies. Huxley is aware of the danger inherent in rejecting the scientific approach wholesale.
Another example of the problems involved in rejecting technology can be seen in the Mad Max films, specifically Mad Max 3 - Beyond Thunderdome. This film has numerous inadequacies, but it works as an apologia for the technological society which brought about nuclear holocaust. Mad Max 3 is unquestionably a genre film, but it is interesting firstly because although in a post-apocalyptic setting, the film portrays technology in an extremely positive light, and secondly because it is specifically Australian. It may, in fact, be indicative of the general toleration and acceptance that Australians seem to have for new technologies. #14.
Mad Max 3 begins by showing how far the road warrior who once drove "the last of the V-8 interceptors" #15. has fallen. Max (Mel Gibson) plods through a desert, his truck drawn by a team of camels. Robbed of this vehicle by an aerial pirate, Max tracks it to Bartertown, an anarchistic walled settlement which survives because of two factors - it acts as a trading outpost in the wasteland, and it possesses electricity. Bartertown is overtly ruled by Aunty (Tina Turner), but is actually sustained because of the scientific knowledge of Master (Angelo Rossitto). Master, a dwarf, rides on the shoulders of Blaster (Paul Larsson), who provides muscle for Master’s brains. Jointly known as Master-Blaster, Master runs Underworld - a factory which generates electricity from the methane gas produced by pig’s dung. Max, seeking his vehicle, is only admitted to Bartertown as a mercenary. He is hired to kill Blaster so that Aunty can dominate Master and rule Bartertown, in fact as well as appearance.
Max fights Blaster in a game-show style of trial-by-combat, known as Thunderdome. Max defeats the mentally-retarded Blaster, but does not kill him, in defiance of the rules of Thunderdome and the conspiracy with Aunty. Sentenced to death by exposure, Max is rescued by a tracker from a "lost tribe" - a group of children, survivors of a plane crash. Abandoned long ago by the adult survivors, the children have formed a tribal hunter-gatherer society, complete with corrupted language and mythology based on hazy memories of pre-apocalyptic artifacts. They mistake Max for the mythical Captain Walker - the pilot of the plane who went for help, and whose return signals the rescue and transportation of the child-tribe to "Tomorrowmorrowland" - the old city. Despite Max’s attempts to dissuade them, some of the older children set out to find Bartertown, and recapture the "knowin’ and the doin’" of things. Max follows, and after a rescue from the treacherous sands of the wasteland, the group reaches Bartertown. They manage to infiltrate the city, capture Master, and escape into the wilderness. Pursued by Aunty and her thugs, Max, Master and the children encounter the pilot who stole Max’s truck. Using his plane, Master and the children are able to escape to the ruined city, while Max is left behind. The film ends with a final "Tell" - the oral wisdom of the child-tribe, which speaks of hope to recapture the civilization prior to the atomic war.
Oddly, there is virtually no overtly negative mention of technology in Mad Max 3. Despite living in a desert because of an atomic war, the film specifically criticises humans. Dr. Dealgood (Edwin Hodgeman) is Bartertown’s used-camel salesman, soothsayer, and ringmaster of Thunderdome. He explains:
The other mini-society is the idyllic "lost valley" of the children. It is a natural paradise - waterfalls, vegetation and coolness in the middle of the desert. But the valley lacks technology, other than some pseudo-aboriginal items, #17. and the relics left by the adults. One of the features of this part of the film is the Riddley Walker-esque #18. language deterioration, and the broken, confused, and misunderstood technological relics that make up their proto-mythology. They have a vinyl LP record on a stick (called a "sonic") which they spin while repeating radio call signs, their vision of pre-apocalyptic city life ("Tomorrowmorrowland") comes to them through a ViewMaster slide viewer, and they look at the tribal history painted on the walls through a box on a stick - a residual television.
The oral history ("the Tell") of the tribe recounts how the paintings came to be made, and where the adults went. After the crash of the plane following the "Pockyclips", according to the Tell, the adults led the children to the valley, and decided to stay. The Tell says:
Bonjour… Good Morning.
Ou allez vous… Where are you going?
Je vais chez moi… I’m going home. #21.
The final "Tell" of the film takes place some years after the children have reached the city, and begun to struggle back towards civilization:
Ultimately, the film fails because it does not adequately use the opportunity it so carefully set up, an opportunity to comment on the future of technology in the hands of the caring and co-operative. The children do not seem to realise that the Knowin’ and Doin’ of their forebears is potentially destructive: their ideal "Tomorrowmorrowland" is the capitalistic triumph of Disneyland, where illusion and reality blend, but if the film knows this, it does not deal with it. If this failure to deal with the future possibilities of the technology were deliberate the future of humanity would be depressingly deterministic, condemned to repeat the whole meaningless cycle. But that interpretation does not seem to be what the directors intended; the ending is a failure rather than a deliberate strategy. Mad Max 3 is certainly a lot more mainstream than either of the first two films in the Mad Max trilogy, and this has perhaps softened the line that the directors, George Miller and George Ogilvie were willing or able to take. But notwithstanding this failure to take full advantage of the opportunities inherent in Mad Max 3, the film does successfully demonstrate some problems inherent in rejecting technology, both overtly, through the characterizations of Bartertown and the lost valley, and in absentia, via the failure to deal with the possible ramifications of the new civilizations.
The problem, then, with the rejection of science and technology is that
it makes a blind and indiscriminate enemy out of human creativity. People
who merely want better mousetraps will always buy them, but will not advance
anybody’s understanding. People who want to search for "truth" or "knowledge"
will likewise always do so, in secret defiance of authority if need be.
Prohibition is a poor way of trying to curtail human behaviour in our freedom-oriented
western society, and any effort to prohibit technological curiosity is
likely to be even more unsuccessful than attempts to prohibit alcohol,
or other illicit drugs. Some technologies are dangerous, and require special
precautions - for example, the law requires a licensed electrical contractor
to wire up a house, but any child can go to a hobby shop and buy an electronics
kit for a few dollars. The dangerous uses of the technology are regulated
to ensure basic safety concerns, but experimentation in the safe basics
of the art is encouraged. Prohibition of science and technological products
not only leads to defiance of the law, and even revolution, but it creates
an inability to deal with the basic concepts involved, which, like a repressed
spring, will sooner or later jump to the surface.
1. This theme is also extremely prominent in stories discussing the interaction between creator and created, and will be further expanded in section 5.
2. Brave New World, 53.
3. Brave New World, 131.
4. Brave New World, 183.
5. Brave New World, 187.
6. Matter, 102.
7. H.G. Wells A Modern Utopia, intro. Mark R. Hillegas (1905; rpt. Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Pr., 1967), 102.
8. Brave New World, 48.
9. Brave New World, 50.
10. Brave New World, 50.
11. Brave New World, 176-77.
12. Brave New World, 178-79.
13. Matter, 101-102.
14. This would be an interesting point to follow up. There seems to be a perception that Australians are particularly entranced by new technologies, without necessarily being enslaved by them. While this is merely unstudied speculation at present, it may be that this has roots in Geoffrey Blainey’s “Tyranny of Distance” theory. In any case, there seem to be a sizable number of examples of Australia’s infatuation with technology, ranging from films like Mad Max 3 and Malcolm, through commentary on Australians and cars (like that by Phillip Adams), right up to examples such as the Sydney Powerhouse Museum’s determination to purchase (at any price) Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine No. 1. (ABC-TV News, 7:00pm 05-10-95)
15. Mad Max.
16. Mad Max 3.
17. This is one of the failures of the film. There is no adequate explanation in the narrative for the aboriginal base of the children’s society. They are apparently city children, many of whom were young when the plane crashed, and some of whom were born into the society, and yet they are successfully using several different varieties of spears, boomerangs, oral history, and, more tellingly, have successfully adopted a ideal co-operative societal base. It is somehow difficult to give this children’s society the same credence as, say, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.
18. It is hardly coincidental that the absent pilot’s name is “Walker.”
19. Mad Max 3.
20. Mad Max 3.
21. Mad Max 3.
22. Mad Max 3.