The Choice: Shakespeare Or Soma [A Brave New World]

In part 1 of this three-part series, I addressed how 1984, the defacto king of predicting our dystopian present, may fall short of the mark when assessing the reasons for our current state of ignorance and political control. 

You can read that post here, but the TL/DR is that 1984 argues a top-down governmental overhaul, of what we read through big brother monitoring and propaganda, thus preventing citizens from fulfilling their role as an educated electorate that holds political officials accountable- a statement that has gotten trickier in recent weeks, but maybe another example of why 1984 falls short.

I wrote part 1 of this three parter before there was an insurrection on our Capitol. I am writing this one after, and it serves as an all-too real lynchpin for the ways 1984 got our present wrong and how another dystopian novel from the past, A Brave New World, is rightfully growing in acclaim for its aptness and prescience. 

A Brave New World presents a world where literacy was not eschewed through government oversight and propaganda, but through choice. The world was presented with the option of reading Shakespeare or imbibing of a happiness-drug called Soma, the citizenry chose ‘happiness.’ Through this choice, away from literacy and deep thinking towards personal pleasure, they became a decadent society that found peace and removed inconveniences like childbearing and disease, and allowed themselves room to bring close that which brings pleasure and push away that which makes them uncomfortable.

And make no mistake, knowledge is uncomfortable. Michael Lewis says it better than anyone in his book The Fifth Risk, as he addresses why the Trump transition team took so little interest in understanding what the departments of the White House actually did, “There is an upside to ignorance, and a downside to knowledge. Knowledge makes life messier. It makes it a bit more difficult for a person who wishes to shrink the world to a worldview.”

And I would argue, when presented with an opportunity to choose ignorance or knowledge, we chose ignorance. It was not forced on us by an overbearing government like many who are decrying censorship on Facebook and Twitter, it was self-imposed through choices we made long before anything needed removing from Twitter and before Parler got de-platformed. 

The Brave New World was based on a choice. One that was delightfully broken down into a dichotomy that reflects this whole paradigm, Shakespeare or Soma. And those people chose Soma. I think we did too.

Our Soma now takes many forms, cell phones, social media pages, drug use, and pornography are a few easy examples of the ‘drugs’ we consume to induce happiness. Take cell phones for instance. Most studies show adults average just under 3 hours a day on their cell phone, which is a lot. But when looking at teens, that number is higher, some studies, like one from Common Sense Media, put teens at an average of just under 8 hours a day of screen time. 

According to Statista, close to two and a half of those hours are on social media of some kind among all internet users, again, this number is higher for young people (And once again… these people are only reading, on average, four books a year). A good rule of thumb is that a person is probably spending 30% of their screen time on social media, which puts a decent sized damper on anyone hoping those 3-8 hours of phone time were being used for something productive. 

You could say only 30% of that time is on social media, but that means we are splitting the rest of that 70% among other phone activities like texting, playing phone games, checking the weather, listening to music, downloading apps, and all the other minor or semi-minor activities that our phones beckon us to accomplish. Then we can take the remaining time and spread it out amongst Google searching and news ingesting, the quality of those endeavors notwithstanding.

If we took 10% of our average phone times… just ten… we would average nine pages of reading a day, let’s round that up to ten, because only sociopaths stop reading at nine pages and don’t finish the tenth. If we did that, we would average 3,650 pages in a year. Considering books average to around 350 pages, we would average, per person, around ten books per year, which is well over double what we currently do. All of that with just one tenth of the time we spend on phones.

Then take two other mainstream means of instant gratification. There are many ways to approach modern day drug use and prove its prevalence. In fact, I probably don’t even need to support the assertion that America has a drug problem, but I will, and the study I find most powerful was done by Pew, saying that almost half of Americans have a family member or close friend who has been addicted to drugs. I am not old, but I am old enough to remember when the question of the day at drug talks was how many people knew someone who has used drugs. No longer.

As for porn, and the increase of nudes being sent from screen to screen, I also go to Pew, where it says that 41% of Americans agree with the statement that “nude pictures and X-rated videos on the internet provide harmless entertainment for those who enjoy it.” Pornography isn’t a prevalence issue, it’s a normalization issue.

But so what? America has its vices, its Soma… is this just a Puritanical invective for virtue and against vice? Maybe… I do have that in me, but it’s not what I am going for right now.

The point is, we weren’t forced into ignorance by an overbearing government, we embraced it in our own free will. We don’t read because of a lack of time, we just don’t value it. We don’t succumb to fake news and suggestive media because of its persuasiveness, we are just so used to bringing close that which we want and gives us pleasure that we also do it with ‘information.’ 

To be more specific, those who stormed the Capitol did not do so because of a lack of information, but because they selected specific information, and more importantly, deselected a heck of a lot more information. And Twitter is being ‘censured’ not because of big brother, but because of the prevalence of lies that only find breathing room because of a lack of intelligence on those receiving it that is predicated on a choice about what they would consume.

As we spend more time on social media and less time in respectable information outlets like newspapers and books (in fact as we argue against the value of those things), it is not surprising that our thoughts and values are dictated by these new media. In 2019, Pew released a study that showed 55% of adults now get their news from social media ‘often’ or ‘sometimes.’ 

Might I suggest, that that number could quite possibly correlate with those who are also not reading by choice?

This is not the world of 1984. It is A Brave New World where those who read and seek knowledge are considered barbarians, and those who normalize every sin and vice are considered enlightened. In our world, those outlets that remove lies and provocations to violence are ‘big brother’ and those who fit the world into a prescribed worldview using whatever fallacies are most convenient are enlightened, where a shadowy figure named Q holds more weight for an entire group of people than any book or credentialed journalist. They made their choice as we all have made choices for ourselves this last year. But more importantly, we had a choice.

And the consequences of what we chose go much further than individual regression. There are much greater ramifications. And as the world argues over why the Capitol storming happened and who should be held responsible, I think a third dystopian novel helps us answer both those questions… But that’s for next time.

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If you liked this, you may also like:
Are We Living In An Orwellian State? [1984]
Personal Top 50 Fiction Book List (Ranked)
A Very American Reading List
Empathy Through Reading: Recommendations During Racial Unrest
[Harry Potter]’s Legacy: Often Imitated, Never Repeated
Shadow Tongue: A Pseudo-Language [The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth]

4 thoughts on “The Choice: Shakespeare Or Soma [A Brave New World]

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