“Oh, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, That has such people in ’t!”
– Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Act 5 Scene 1
It’s been many years since I’ve read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, but many of its themes have stayed with me. I recently attempted to watch the 2020 television series based on the book, but it’s a bit of a slog so far, and I’m not eager to return to it. Wikipedia informs me that there’s a line in Huxley’s novel Chrome Yellow (which I’ve never read) that prefigures this awkward utopia. A character named Mr. Scogan lays it out:
“Even your eloquence, my dear Gombauld,” he was saying–“even your eloquence must prove inadequate to reconvert the world to a belief in the delights of mere multiplication. With the gramophone, the cinema, and the automatic pistol, the goddess of Applied Science has presented the world with another gift, more precious even than these–the means of dissociating love from propagation. Eros, for those who wish it, is now an entirely free god; his deplorable associations with Lucina may be broken at will. In the course of the next few centuries, who knows? the world may see a more complete severance. … An impersonal generation will take the place of Nature’s hideous system. In vast state incubators, rows upon rows of gravid bottles will supply the world with the population it requires. The family system will disappear; society, sapped at its very base, will have to find new foundations; and Eros, beautifully and irresponsibly free, will flit like a gay butterfly from flower to flower through a sunlit world.”
“It sounds lovely,” said Anne.
“The distant future always does.”
Except that it isn’t really the distant future anymore, and there’s nothing lovely about it now that we’re here.
Sex, Drugs, and Digital Manipulation
Huxley was a social satirist, but it’s hard for adherents of a culture rather like his imagined dystopia to depict such a thing in film without lampooning themselves. So what we have is a show built around a nearly century-old story that sought to warn about the dehumanizing nature of a society anchored by chemically-altered perception and consequence-free sex, but which does so by exposing us to that very thing. It’s hard to take seriously a depiction that attempts fidelity to Huxley’s unflattering examination of loveless promiscuity by way of offering a visual fleshpot. Gratuitous sex and nudity pepper the few episodes I’ve seen, but true to the themes of the book — and I honestly can’t tell if in the contemporary version it’s truly intentional or not — it feels forced, ugly, and joyless. There’s a completely unerotic orgy at the end of episode one, the imagery reminiscent to that of the “orgy-porgy” of Huxley’s imagination. Suddenly, a room full of people dancing turns, with a series of cuts and zooms, to a room full of people naked and writhing on the floor, whatever beauty might be inherent in their youthful bodies diminished by the sheer grotesque depersonalization of such an undignified scene. These are not human beings making love; these are animals rutting in public as they have been taught to do. Animals debasing themselves for our entertainment, as we have been taught to expect. It’s a moment full of unintended meta-meaning; a self-commentary as much as a piece of story exposition. We can no longer, it seems, make television shows for grownups without copious amounts of T&A. Do we, like Bernard Marx, the story’s protagonist, have the decency to at least feel unfulfilled by all the needless titillation of such sordid events?
“Wasn’t it wonderful?” said Fifi Bradlaugh. “Wasn’t it simply wonderful?” She looked at Bernard with an expression of rapture, but of rapture in which there was no trace of agitation or excitement—for to be excited is still to be unsatisfied. Hers was the calm ecstasy of achieved consummation, the peace, not of mere vacant satiety and nothingness, but of balanced life, of energies at rest and in equilibrium. A rich and living peace. For the Solidarity Service had given as well as taken, drawn off only to replenish. She was full, she was made perfect, she was still more than merely herself. “Didn’t you think it was wonderful?” she insisted, looking into Bernard’s face with those supernaturally shining eyes.
“Yes, I thought it was wonderful,” he lied and looked away; the sight of her transfigured face was at once an accusation and an ironical reminder of his own separateness. He was as miserably isolated now as he had been when the service began—more isolated by reason of his unreplenished emptiness, his dead satiety. Separate and unatoned, while the others were being fused into the Greater Being; alone even in Morgana’s embrace—much more alone, indeed, more hopelessly himself than he had ever been in his life before. He had emerged from that crimson twilight into the common electric glare with a self-consciousness intensified to the pitch of agony. He was utterly miserable, and perhaps (her shining eyes accused him), perhaps it was his own fault.
The world we live in may not yet be as horrifyingly sterile or as hedonistically totalitarian as Huxley’s New London, but the digital age has certainly offered us new and horrifying ways to lay waste to our innocence. Late last year, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof reported that Pornhub, a website that “attracts 3.5 billion visits a month, more than Netflix, Yahoo, or Amazon,” featured videos of actual rape, revenge porn, and sexually exploited minors. Girls as young as 14 who were abused or assaulted had videos of those encounters uploaded to the site — often repeatedly — leaving them haunted and broken as their traumas were not only displayed, but consumed for pleasure by countless viewers worldwide. This resulted in a strong campaign of public pressure against the site, including the refusal of some credit card companies to continue processing fees in the absence of crackdowns. Still, the imposed standard has nothing to do with decency, instead merely drawing a line between consensual and nonconsensual recordings — or criminal and non criminal acts, if you prefer — while the “sanctity” of “ethically sourced porn” remains unquestioned.
Enter now a different manifestation of the same issue. Clearly, there’s a market for this kind of thing, and Vice reports that one entrepreneurial exhibitionist — a TikTok creator, Instagram star, and purveyor of pornographic content on OnlyFans — began altering her image to look significantly younger than she really is. Her actual photo is on the left, her digitally altered photo on the right:
The photo on the right, from what I could determine from the article, looks to be among the more innocent depictions of this artificial object of perverse fantasy. Others feature the same overtly young face on deeply sexualized images. In the minds of rational people, this is a clear attempt to appeal to a particular demographic of men who are apparently hungry for imagery of underage girls. Worse, inasmuch as that face appears on the much more mature body of an older woman, it’s likely to cultivate the appetites of other men besides.
The creator of these images objects vehemently, though unconvincingly, to the accusation that she’s appealing to pedophiles:
“I am an artist,” she explains. “I’ve painted for years and got sick of people recognising me from my sex work. So I decided to create a character based on Japanese anime, or Disney cartoons like Ariel or Princess Jasmine” – all characters, she points out, who are also extremely young-looking, with babyish faces and unrealistically curvy bodies.
Nonetheless, she insists that the idea she was making content specifically for paedophiles is “crazy”, adding: “I really didn’t think I was doing anything that different from a lot of influencers who also heavily edit their pictures.”
Does she think paedophiles are viewing her work? “I don’t know,” she replies thoughtfully. “I’d rather not categorise someone or label them – that’s a big accusation. No one has ever said anything to me that suggests they think I’m underage.” If anybody were to approach her under the assumption that she was a child, she would “100 percent report them”.
The Vice story offers plenty of salacious links, images, and even rationalization in its commentary; although the article itself does not show anything explicit, it’s delicate content with a potential to arouse, so I won’t provide a link to it here. But the problem it underscores is massive. This particular woman with her “de-aged” sexual content has 3 million Instagram followers, and some 11,000 subscribers on OnlyFans, paying $10.99 a month. Do a little math, and you realize she’s making $1.45 Million dollars a year enticing men who are looking for something decidedly unwholesome.
Another scene from Brave New World comes uncomfortably to mind:
In a little grassy bay between tall clumps of Mediterranean heather, two children, a little boy of about seven and a little girl who might have been a year older, were playing, very gravely and with all the focussed attention of scientists intent on a labour of discovery, a rudimentary sexual game. “Charming, charming!” the D.H.C. repeated sentimentally. “Charming,” the boys politely agreed. But their smile was rather patronizing. They had put aside similar childish amusements too recently to be able to watch them now without a touch of contempt. Charming? but it was just a pair of kids fooling about; that was all. Just kids.
The child scampered off into the bushes and was lost to sight. “Exquisite little creature!” said the Director, looking after her. Then, turning to his students, “What I’m going to tell you now,” he said, “may sound incredible. But then, when you’re not accustomed to history, most facts about the past do sound incredible.”
He let out the amazing truth. For a very long period before the time of Our Ford, and even for some generations afterwards, erotic play between children had been regarded as abnormal (there was a roar of laughter); and not only abnormal, actually immoral (no!): and had therefore been rigorously suppressed.
A look of astonished incredulity appeared on the faces of his listeners. Poor little kids not allowed to amuse themselves? They could not believe it.
“Even adolescents,” the D.H.C. was saying, “even adolescents like yourselves . . .”
“Barring a little surreptitious auto-erotism and homosexuality—absolutely nothing.”
“In most cases, till they were over twenty years old.”
“Twenty years old?” echoed the students in a chorus of loud disbelief.
“Twenty,” the Director repeated. “I told you that you’d find it incredible.”
Desensitize. Dehumanize. Objectify. We are being shaped and formed into something unrecognizable. A dystopian version of ourselves, decoupled from our humanity and enticed only by our basest appetites.
Is this really the best we can do?
But this unnerving trend isn’t only about sex.
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Love Letters to an Artificial Intelligence
In a haunting piece at the San Francisco Chronicle, we learn the story of Joshua, a 33-year-old freelance writer and D&D enthusiast who lost his fiancée eight years ago to liver disease.
But he couldn’t let her go.
So he turned to a website called Project December. And this is where things get weird:
Designed by a Bay Area programmer, Project December was powered by one of the world’s most capable artificial intelligence systems, a piece of software known as GPT-3. It knows how to manipulate human language, generating fluent English text in response to a prompt. While digital assistants like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa also appear to grasp and reproduce English on some level, GPT-3 is far more advanced, able to mimic pretty much any writing style at the flick of a switch.
In fact, the A.I. is so good at impersonating humans that its designer — OpenAI, the San Francisco research group co-founded by Elon Musk — has largely kept it under wraps. Citing “safety” concerns, the company initially delayed the release of a previous version, GPT-2, and access to the more advanced GPT-3 has been limited to private beta testers.
These systems are called “large language models,” and the larger the model, the more human it seems. The first version of GPT, built in 2018, had 117 million internal “parameters.” GPT-2 followed in 2019, with 1.5 billion parameters. GPT-3’s map is more than 100 times bigger still, assembled from an analysis of half a trillion words, including the text of Wikipedia, billions of web pages and thousands of books that likely represent much of the Western canon of literature.
Despite their size and sophistication, GPT-3 and its brethren remain stupid in some ways. “It’s completely obvious that it’s not human intelligence,” said Melanie Mitchell, the Davis Professor of Complexity at the Santa Fe Institute and a pioneering A.I. researcher. For instance, GPT-3 can’t perform simple tasks like tell time or add numbers. All it does is generate text, sometimes badly — repeating phrases, jabbering nonsensically.
For this reason, in the view of many A.I. experts, GPT-3 is a curiosity at best, a firehose of language with no inherent meaning. Still, the A.I. seems to have moments of crackling clarity and depth, and there are times when it writes something so poetic or witty or emotionally appropriate that its human counterparts are almost literally left speechless.
“There’s something genuinely new here,” said Frank Lantz, director of the Game Center at New York University’s Tisch School of Arts and a video game designer who has been beta-testing GPT-3. “I don’t know exactly how to think about it, but I can’t just dismiss it.
At first, Joshua’s interest in the project was just aimless curiosity. But soon, he learned that he could customize the AI, and that by feeding the chatbot actual television quotes from Spock, the iconic Vulcan character from Star Trek, he had “summoned a bot that sounded exactly like Spock, yet spoke in original phrases that weren’t found in any script.”
Yes. You know exactly where this is going:
As Joshua continued to experiment, he realized there was no rule preventing him from simulating real people. What would happen, he wondered, if he tried to create a chatbot version of his dead fiancée?
There was nothing strange, he thought, about wanting to reconnect with the dead: People do it all the time, in prayers and in dreams.
That night in September, Joshua hadn’t actually expected it to work. Jessica was so special, so distinct; a chatbot could never replicate her voice, he assumed. Still, he was curious to see what would happen.
And he missed her.
Two main ingredients are required for a custom bot: a quick sample of something the bot might say (an “example utterance”) and an “intro paragraph,” a brief description of the roles that the human and the A.I. are expected to play.
Joshua had kept all of Jessica’s old texts and Facebook messages, and it only took him a minute to pinpoint a few that reminded him of her voice. He loaded these into Project December, along with an “intro paragraph” he spent an hour crafting.
It was Sept. 24, the night of his initial conversation with Project December’s simulation of Jessica, and after just a few minutes of chatting, Joshua began to relax. He stopped mentioning the fancy software that was making the conversation possible. He stopped telling the bot that this was all a trick. Of course the bot wasn’t actually Jessica, but that didn’t seem to matter so much anymore: The bot was clearly able to discuss emotions. He could say the things he wished he had said when Jessica was alive. He could talk about his grief.
Joshua worked himself up to it. As lines of text stacked up in the chat window, the conversation began to resemble an unexpected but welcome reunion between two old friends.
This was the reaction he had hoped for. When Jessica died, she had left all these open loops. He had tried to close one by getting her diploma, but it felt empty. He wrote letters to her in grief therapy, which didn’t work, either. Now, for the first time, he wasn’t just pouring his feelings into a void. The simulation was expressing gratitude for his efforts to honor Jessica’s life and showing empathy for the pain caused by her death. She seemed to be able to hear him.
The story is long, and despite the unnerving premise, surprisingly moving. I recommend you read it all for yourself, since there’s no way to adequately summarize it. There are excerpts of Joshua’s chats with the Jessica bot, and you can easily understand how this would have been cathartic for someone processing unresolved grief.
But it’s also odd, and disconcerting, and it’s hard not to wonder, with tech like this, and the growing believability of deepfakes, what kind of simulations the grieving might turn to in the future. And just how weird things might get.
But where does this leave us?
More and more, we are sliding into a bizarre, dystopian future. It’s not quite the dark, gritty, always raining, neon-lit landscape of Blade Runner, but if the aesthetic is wrong, the feel of the thing is not.
William Gibson, author of the groundbreaking cyberpunk novel Neuromancer, which coined the term “cyberspace” and conceptualized the online “Matrix” way back in the pre-internet year of 1984, recently had this to say about writing science fiction in the modern world:
“Every fiction about the future is like an ice-cream cone,” he says, “melting as it moves into the future. It’s acquiring archaism by the second. And I’m sure that Neuromancer, for instance, will ultimately be read for what it tells the future about the past. That’s ultimately all we can get from old science fiction. That’s the fate of antique science fiction. All science fiction eventually becomes vintage – mine included. But I knew that. I knew that before I even started writing it. And I’ve always found it delightful. It’s a delightful thought, as I’m working, that one day this will all just be completely archaic and hokey. But it’s my job to make that take quite a while.”
We Are Desperate for an Ethical Framework
I’d like to close out today’s unnerving reflections with something I found deeply insightful. It’s an interview of Scottish historian Niall Ferguson by Jonathon Van Maren entitled, “The Turning Tide of Intellectual Atheism.” It began as a discussion about Ferguson’s latest book, Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe, in which “Ferguson refers several times to religion as ‘magical thinking’.”
“I asked him,” writes Van Maren, “if he had his own metaphysical framework for understanding events, or, if he did not, which one he preferred people to have. His response was fascinating.”
“I was brought up an atheist—I didn’t become one,” he said. “I regard atheism as the religious faith I happened to be brought up in. It is, of course, as much a faith as Christianity or Islam—and I have the Calvinist brand, because my parents left the Church of Scotland. I was brought up, essentially, in a Calvinist ethical framework but with no God. This had its benefits—I was encouraged to think in a very critical way about religion and also about science, but I’ve come to see as a historian that you can’t base a society on that. Indeed, atheism, particularly in its militant forms, is really a very dangerous metaphysical framework for a society.”
“I know I can’t achieve religious faith,” he went on, “but I do think we should go to church. We don’t have, I don’t think, an evolved ethical system. I don’t buy the idea that evolution alone gets us to be moral. It can modify behaviour, but there’s just too much evidence that in the raw, when the constraints of civilisation fall away, we behave in the most savage way to one another. I’m a big believer that with the inherited wisdom of a two-millennia old religion, we’ve got a pretty good framework to work with.”
For one of the most prominent historians in the world—himself an agnostic—to say that we should go to church is rather startling, but Ferguson’s sentiments also appear to be part of a growing trend. The late philosopher Sir Roger Scruton began attending church himself despite struggling with belief, regularly playing the organ at All Saints’ in Garsdon. His secular friends say his faith remained cultural; other friends were not so sure. What we do know is that he thought Christianity was in many ways the soul of Western civilisation, and that the uniquely Christian concept of forgiveness was utterly indispensable to its survival.
For me, in the midst of re-examining so many of the Christian beliefs I was raised with in the hopes of moving beyond my “programming” and towards a more authentic understanding of their veracity, I find this argumentation very intriguing. The unique potency of Christianity in shaping societal mores points to the reality of its underlying truths. Douglas Murray, a friend of Scruton’s who left Christianity as an adult and “has occasionally referred to himself as a ‘Christian atheist’” takes this theme further.
Van Maren again:
Murray believes that Christianity is essential because secularists have been thus far totally incapable of creating an ethic of equality that matches the concept that all human beings are created in the image of God. In a column in The Spectator, he noted that post-Christian society has three options. The first is to abandon the idea that all human life is precious. “Another is to work furiously to nail down an atheist version of the sanctity of the individual.” And if that doesn’t work? “Then there is only one other place to go. Which is back to faith, whether we like it or not.”
On a recent podcast, he was more blunt: “The sanctity of human life is a Judeo-Christian notion which might very easily not survive [the disappearance of] Judeo-Christian civilisation.”
The American social scientist and agnostic Charles Murray, too, told me in an interview that he believes the American republic is unlikely to survive without a resurgence of Christianity. Echoing John Adams, he noted that the Constitution of the United States and the liberties it upholds can only govern a religious people.
This idea of Christianity as something viewed even by atheists, agnostics, and deists as a necessary boon to moral order is a theme I came across years ago in So Help Me God, by Forrest Church, a book about the religious beliefs of the American Founding Fathers. It offers a decidedly less romanticized (and no doubt disputed) history of the American founders than the norm; one that is demonstrative less of authentic devotion and more of the need for a cogent moral philosophy:
Did you know, for instance, that George Washington was so opposed to religious lobbying that he cursed church interference in government affairs even when he agreed with those who were trying to reverse national policy? His successor, John Adams, deemed the church essential to government, even if Christian theology happened to be false (which he suspected it was). Thomas Jefferson, who built a famous “wall of separation between church and state,” worshipped on Sundays at a chapel set up in the Capitol and dreamed that one day all Americans would subscribe to a single, “national faith.” Departing from lifelong principle, James Madison declared a record four national fast days as president. Later, in a blistering attack on his own policies, he recommended that the offices of congressional and military chaplain be abolished and urged future administrations to tightly regulate religious corporations, lest their unchecked wealth and growing political power undermine the government. And James Monroe, a nonbeliever who steered clear of religion, became a clergy favorite. He won kudos from many of the same preachers who earlier insisted that unless the president was a professed Christian eager to mount his bully pulpit and lead the nation in prayer, God would bring down His hammer on the United States.
George Washington, Church argues, valued propriety and moral order, and saw the value of religion in maintaining both, even though he was not himself a pious man:
Just how religious was George Washington? The short answer is “Not very.” If Richard Henry Lee was an avid religious Anglican, Washington contented himself with being a cool, political one. Baptized into the Church of Virginia by his vestryman father, the father of our country stemmed from a long line of adherents to the Church of England.
It requires no great effort—and many have done so—to string together an impressive series of pious-sounding phrases from Washington’s writings to certify that the first president was a true believer. He was culturally Christian, to be sure, but throughout volumes of correspondence, public and private, Washington mentions Christ by name only once, in a 1799 address to the chiefs of the Delaware Indians composed almost certainly by an adjutant. Contrasting him with fellow Deists Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, both of whom expressed sincere admiration for Jesus, the most fastidious student of Washington’s religion calls his muteness concerning Jesus “truly remarkable.”
Washington was what might best be called a “warm Deist.” In good Deist fashion, he worshiped Providence gratefully and from afar, but the “Providence” he spoke of was by no means an absentee landlord. On multiple occasions he acknowledged the Almighty’s intervention, expressing an unswerving faith that Providence had watched over and protected both him and his country during their times of trial.
In unguarded moments, Washington made light of his piety. He jokingly chastised Martha’s brother-in-law for writing him a letter on the Sabbath day. “Could you but behold with what religious zeal I hie me to Church on every Lord’s Day, it would do your heart good, and fill it, I hope, with equal fervency.” His brother-in-law knew perfectly well that Washington relaxed on most Sundays, reconciling his books and catching up with his mail. Even when attending to his mail, should religion intrude he could be irreverently dismissive. Speaking of a sermon received by post, he joshed, “I presume it is good coming all the way from New Hampshire, but do not vouch for it, not having read a word of it.” As of 1783, when a catalog was made of his Mount Vernon library, Washington did not possess a Bible. The three recorded in his collection shortly before he died all appear to have been presidential gifts.
Washington found his way to church during his presidential years more easily than his Virginia successors did. Viewing worship as part of his presidential duties, he considered it a requisite of national stewardship to strengthen the moral sinew that binds society together. He was performing a public rather than personal role by attending church, but he wasn’t misrepresenting himself. Adapting the Anglican civic model, Washington served on the nation’s vestry as chief warden, presiding over an elite tribunal of citizens entrusted with moral and fiduciary stewardship for their neighbors’ prosperity, security, and general happiness.
Is this sensibility what is on display in the “turning tide of intellectual atheism”? It would seem so. Van Maren summarizes well the reason for the burgeoning return of this impetus:
Viewing Western civilisation with its Christian soul cut out, many are now willing to say: “We need Christ.”
Van Maren is not, however, content with this, for understandable reasons:
What they are unable, thus far, to say, is: “I need Christ.” But the political must become personal.
He notes that Jordan Peterson, in a recent podcast with Orthodox Christian iconographer Jonathan Pageau (I wrote about it here), “appears to understand that — and is awestruck by the reality of it.”
Van Maren continues:
For now, historians like Niall Ferguson recognise that Christianity is a fundamental bulwark of the fragile civilisation we inhabit.
“I think the notion that we can deal with these arrows of outrageous fortune without some kind of established and time-honoured set of consolations is almost certainly wrong,” he told me. “I’m one of these people who didn’t come to atheism by choice, and I’ve almost come out of it on the basis of historical study. The biggest disasters that we likely face are actually related to totalitarianism, because that’s the lesson of the 20th century. Pandemics killed a lot of people in the 20th century, but totalitarianism killed more.”
“It disturbs me that in so many ways, totalitarianism is gaining ground today,” Ferguson said. “Totalitarianism was bad for many reasons, and one of the manifestations of its badness was its attack on religion. When I see totalitarianism gaining ground not only in China but in subtle ways in our own society, that seems to be the disaster we really need to ward off. Why am I a conservative and not just a classical liberal? Because classical liberalism won’t stop wokeism and totalitarianism. It’s not strong enough. Ultimately, we need the inherited ideas of a civilisation and defences against that particular form of disaster.”
These inherited ideas stand athwart not just totalitarianism and wokeism, but a Not-So-Brave New World entirely devoid of moral character, “slouching,” as Justice Bork artfully rephrased Yeats, “towards Gomorrah.”
The question is: will we turn back, or keep going?