Critical masterpiece Brave New World by Aldous Huxley outlines the components of a complicit society — one of pleasure and beauty and a drug called soma. Do we share anything in common?
Have you ever done drugs?
Let me dial back a few notches — what is a drug? Is it a substance that alters a state of consciousness? Something that shimmies around your brain chemistry and makes you feel good?
Are drugs something to be wary of? Like a thief in the night, coming to steal your body’s vitamin C supply, which is a common side effect of smoking?
In these strange times, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and its depiction of the drug soma is more relevant and frightening than ever. Our society enjoys drugs in the same way the citizens of the World State do, which is the governing society of Brave New World. This got me thinking: seeing as we are on the brink of complete societal collapse, what is the root function that drugs serve in both of these societies?
Whenever a citizen of the World State has a moment’s pause, or an unpleasant experience, they pop a “gramme” of soma and go on “holiday.” This leaves people with no opportunity or reason to sit and think. It preserves world order.
In present-day North America, we often go on “holiday” like the people of the World State, except in our case, it’s on a screen. We don’t even go number two without zoning out on “holiday” to Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, or Youtube. These days, we don’t think critically about our society’s conventional wisdom and we don’t assess our own thoughts and opinions. Did I think of this idea myself, or did I hear it somewhere? Where did I learn this information? Is this source peer-reviewed? Who conducted this research?
Our soma is literally called Crave, could the message be any clearer? What do you call it when you’re up all night binge watching a show — a bender?
According to the digital Harvard Library, in the 1950s, British neuroscientist John R. Smythies researched the stroboscopic effect on “normal individuals.” According to literary scholar and philosopher Anthony Peake, the stroboscopic effect is when flashing lights create a “flicker effect” in front of the eyes — in other words, what a screen does every time it’s on, whether it be a cellphone, tablet, or computer.
In concluding his research, “Smythies compared the strobe’s “power of addiction” to the powerful drug [mescaline].”
News has become reality television and reality television is now scripted. Thirty-minute Netflix series now end in the middle of the story, and we end up in bed watching marathons instead of running them. Is it all a coincidence?
The hard lines of fact and fiction, of journalism and propaganda, of documentary and reality television, are fading. It’s a dangerous thing that, as more content becomes more accessible, more of our time is spent accessing this content. Commercials are now tied right into the series, as the protagonist breaks the fourth wall and nudges to the audience the shameless product placement.
Is this the holiday soma promised?
I’m left with more questions than answers, but maybe that’s a good thing. It’s important to be critical of our surroundings. How is it that a cellphone plan is now an easy $50 a month? I remember making my first budget when I moved out, and there it was, a $50 cut in my broke-berry pie. When did this become an essential cost of living?
This concept that we need our cellphone is a conventional wisdom of our time. You see the little note taped to your door that reminds you what you need before leaving: “Phone. Keys. Wallet.”
Do I need my phone? Or am I experiencing an addiction to the millions of lights flickering on the screen every time I check it for the time, or get a really well-timed targeted ad.
Isolation has only exacerbated the issue. For those of us fortunate enough to have the option to stay home and self-isolate, most of our communication is taking place on a screen. Hell, I’m writing these words on a screen, and you’re reading it off one. We’re now working from our screens, meeting people from our screens, taking exercise classes from our screens, even having essential services like doctors appointments from our screens.
With all this time spent staring at screens, it would be a good idea to screen the content once in a while. Consider the addictive nature of these devices and take a day off. Since the lights off our phones impact our brains like Mescaline, does that mean you’re getting high right now reading this? Soma promises the people of the World State a holiday, but all my screen promises me is a vitamin C supplement for $29.99, and yours can too if you act now.
Graphic by Taylor Reddam