April 1, 2009

Aldous Huxley interview with Mike Wallace (1958)

Author and social critic Aldous Huxley spoke with Mike Wallace in a remarkable 1958 interview.

Huxley had just written Enemies of Freedom and it became the focus of the discussion. Wallace and Huxley discussed such topics as overpopulation, the growing impersonalization of human affairs, propaganda, mind-controlling drugs, and various prescriptions for these problems.

In this video Huxley makes some very astute observations that are still very pertinent today, affirming him as a very capable futurologist and one of the great minds of the 20th Century.

This was taped at the height of the Cold War, when it wasn't at all clear as to whether the United States or Soviet Union would win the battle of minds. Huxley was making the case that freedom was in peril and that there were two primary forces working against the United States at the time: accelerating impersonalization and technological advancements.

In particular, he saw overpopulation as a disaster in waiting. Huxley argued that growing populations would place undue pressure on existing resources, which would in turn force central governments to exert more control. It would also lead to increased social unrest -- something Huxley believed would play into the hands of totalitarian regimes [sound familiar?].

Huxley also warned about what he called 'over-organization.' As technology becomes more complicated, he said, it becomes necessary to have more elaborate organizations, particularly hierarchical organizations. The science of organization has progressed accordingly, said Huxley, allowing for organization on a scale never before possible; more and more people are living as subordinates under the thumb of massive bureaucracies.

He was also worried about the powers of propaganda and the innovative ways regimes had become able to deliver their messages. Hitler, for example, used every modern device made available to him, enabling him to impose his will on an immense mass of educated people: "We musn't be caught by surprise by our own advancing technology. This has happened again and again in history...Technology advances and changes social conditions -- and suddenly people have found themselves in a situation which they didn't foresee and doing all sorts of things they really didn't want to do."

Looking at the situation in 1958, Huxley commented that "Television is [currently] being used too much to distract people all the time." This remark led quite naturally to a discussion of Soma, a drug he featured in his famous book, Brave New World. Huxley predicted that drugs would be introduced that could change our mental states but won't do us any harm -- they would be "mind changing" drugs.

Dictatorships of the future, said Huxley, could "bypass the rational side of man and even his physiology, and actually make him love his slavery," making them "happy in a situation where they oughtn't to be happy."

He was also worried that modern election campaigns had regressed in such a way that the electorate was "being persuaded below the point of choice and reason." Huxley was concerned that politicians were using advertising techniques in their campaigns. Specifically, he worried about 'subliminal projection' and other hidden persuasion techniques.

Clearly, Huxley was right on the mark. Today's elections have become very much like this -- nothing more than massive advertising campaigns. And whereas Huxley and his contemporaries were worried about subliminal messaging, today we worry that leaders like Barack Obama and other politicians are using novel persuasion techniques like neuro-linguistic programming (NLP).

Tactics such as these, argued Huxley, are "making nonsense of the whole democratic procedure which is based on rational grounds." He warned that we would undermind our institutions: "Democracy is based on the assumption that power is dangerous."

So, how do we preserve the integrity and value of the human individual? Huxley believed it was a matter of education and decentralization.

On education, Huxley stressed the importance of teaching individualism and teaching against the booby-traps of persuasion. He felt it important to make children aware of persuasion and other techniques.

As for de-centralization, his prescription was to see voters re-empowered. He envisioned smaller electorates where voters could feel that their votes mattered and that they were somehow contributing to the political process.

Lastly, Wallace asked: Is freedom necessary? Is it necessary for a productive society?

Yes, answered Huxley: Creativity and initiative is impossible without a large measure of freedom.

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