If This is Progress I Prefer Obsolescence
It wasn’t a stormy Monday, but the morning was overcast and melancholic. I stood looking out the third floor window of a room at the assisted living facility in Northern Virginia where my 93-year-old grandmother had spent the last several years of her life. Diagnosed with dementia and in deteriorating health, she appeared to be in her final days, the facility staff warned.
Across the road I could see the former Men’s Warehouse—now an empty and boarded-up building—where I had bought my very first suit for an interview. Further beyond was a mall that had been the locus of so many of my childhood memories, now in ill-repair, many of the stores inside permanently closed. This town in which both sets of my grandparents had raised their children, and in which one of my grandfathers had run a successful business, would be almost unrecognizable to them now, only a few decades later.
Leafing through a photo album on my grandmother’s dresser, I saw a world even further removed from ours. There was a photo of one of her brothers, dressed perhaps in the same uniform in which he would die in the European theater during World War II. There was a copy of her father’s liquor license for the bar he ran before and after Prohibition (they distilled bootleg booze in the “dry days”). Curious, I punched the address of the Detroit saloon into my phone—it was now a dilapidated single-family home with a tarp spread over part of the roof.
People, generations, entire cultures come and go. Towns once inhabited by Polish-Americans in my grandmother’s native Michigan are now predominantly Muslim. The care providers at her assisted living facility—whose inhabitants are almost entirely white members of the “Greatest Generation”—are either Latino or Ethiopian. All of these health professionals are gracious and friendly, and a few ask about the cute children I usually bring with me when I visit.
“If you don’t like change, you’re going to dislike irrelevance even more,” warned U.S. Army general and Vietnam War veteran Eric Shinseki. I know it’s true—not only in war, but in business and education. The permanently static approach is a recipe for disaster. Those who have suffered through the slow realization that one’s business model or even entire industry has become obsolete know all too well that sinking feeling of irreversible failure.
Yet there is a categorical difference between the loss of chain stores in one’s suburban town or the death of some once-trendy technology (8-tracks, I hardly knew ye), and the disintegration of a broader culture and way of life. Indeed, sometimes the changes we witness reflect an entirely different anthropology or axiology. In time, we realize that what we thought was obsolete was actually something essential to our own flourishing as humans.
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World communicates this truth. The novel imagines a future in which “the principle of mass production [is] at last applied to biology.” Human embryos are raised outside the mother’s womb by geneticists who apply all manners of chemicals to condition every member of the race for predetermined roles. “The secret of happiness and virtue,” says one such scientist, is “making people like their unescapable social destiny.”
It is a world that rejects all that is old and antiquated. “History is bunk,” asserts one of the admired experts, citing a quotation attributed to Henry Ford. This imagined society’s predecessors had waged “a campaign against the Past; by the closing of museums, the blowing up of historical monuments… by the suppression of all books published before A.F. [“After Ford”] 150.” Another expert explains: “We haven’t any use for old things here…. Particularly when they’re beautiful. Beauty’s attractive, and we don’t want people to be attracted by old things. We want them to like the new ones.”
The elevation of sensual pleasure as the highest good defines this dystopian world. Pain and boredom are curbed by the use of soma, a narcotic. Freedom is rejected, because free will necessarily allows for the possibility of pain. The same fate comes for truth, which must be sacrificed for the sake of social stability and sex. Says one expert: “Old men in the bad old days used to renounce, retire, take to religion, spend their time reading, thinking—thinking!”
It is a world driven solely by a sharp-edged utilitarian calculus. Primroses and landscapes are “gratuitous,” because “love of nature keeps no factories busy.” Even purpose, or what the ancients called final causality, must be rejected, because then people would “lose their faith in [sensual] happiness as the Sovereign Good,” and instead consider various transcendent goods—beauty, love, God—as their true telos.
Yet with such an incomplete (and impoverished) view of human happiness, the inherent dignity of human persons is also compromised, sacrificed at the foot of amorphous humanity. “The social body persists although the component cells may change,” the experts say. “Murder kills only the individual—and, after all, what is an individual?” Thus abortion and euthanasia—which view humans as inconveniences and expendable—are commonplace.
The mother of one of the main characters — a “savage” from one of the few “reservations” where humans are allowed to continue to live apart from socially-conditioned and genetically-engineered society — is placed under end-of-life medical treatment. Medical workers seek to alleviate the woman’s pain by constantly keeping her on narcotics, though, unlike hospice, a secondary goal of the drugs is to expedite her death. Twenty grams per day of the stuff “will finish her off in a month or two,” the doctor explains with technocratic confidence. Thus she slowly wastes away, “all the time away, infinitely far away, on holiday in some other world.”
No one but her son comes to visit the dying woman. He witnesses her “blank, incurious eyes of second infancy.” The savage remembers his mother, “her voice, her movements, all the events of their life together.” A nurse is confused by the son’s mournful demeanor: “as though death were something terrible, as though any one mattered as much as all that!”
Christians know that this sentiment is the exact opposite of the cross: Christ’s death redeems not only “the world,” but every single member of the human race, regardless of “empirical” utility. As Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann notes, Christ was no activist sent to further some futurist, abstract utopian system. “For Christianity, man is ‘lovable’ because he is person…. Christianity cares little about that problematic future but puts the whole emphasis on the now – the only decisive time for love.”
In contrast, the imagined Brave New World is “Christianity without tears,” as one bureaucrat describes it. Rather than redeeming man from his fallen state, this dystopia seeks to distract him from it via medication, endless entertainment, and sensual delights. The savage alone finds this repulsive. “God’s the reason for everything noble and fine and heroic… I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness, I want sin,” he declares. Or, understood through a historical, orthodox Christian lens, man’s ultimate end is the happiness that appeals to his intellect and heart rather than only his sensitive appetite. We were made to contemplate the divine beauty in its indescribable, infinite perfection.
Many observers have drawn correlations between the dystopian Brave New World and our own age of governmental and corporate control of our lives. We allow Big Tech to follow us wherever we go through our smartphone and to be present in the intimacy of our homes via Amazon Echo. We rely on complex and novel cocktails of entertainment and drugs to distract us from the world, our neighbors, and even ourselves. We pursue increasingly more extreme forms of sexual gratification learned from online pornography and Fifty Shades of Grey.
The results of our own “brave new world” are a mixed bag indeed. We enjoy conveniences our grandparents’ and even parents’ generation find incredible. Anyone with an internet connection has access to more information than the most impressive library of the pre-digital age. But these benefits conceal less positive effects of our progressivist epoch.
The technology that connects and informs us also distracts and dehumanizes us, as photographer Erick Pickersgill’s series “Removed”—in which people pose as if smartphones are in their hands, amidst loved ones or beautiful surroundings—so brilliantly demonstrates. We spend our hours staring at screens, impervious to nature and human relationships, thinking ourselves “connected” while rates of depression, loneliness, and tech addiction skyrocket.
The costs of the sexual revolution—heightened divorced, pornography addictions, more damaging sexual behavior—are well-documented. In vitro fertilization and surrogacy—perhaps the technological developments that best evince the prescience of Aldous Huxley—commodify both mothers and children, turning the latter into lab experiments. Selective abortions, in turn, enable nations to eliminate the genetically deficient, while genetic engineering allows parents to create “designer babies” that satisfy their particular consumerist fancies.
Humans, or at least certain kinds of humans, can simply become obsolete. Indeed, increased interest in the transhumanist movement—promoted by academics and celebrities alike—portends more egregious divisions between wealthy technocratic elites and the plebeians. Artificial Intelligence, in turn, threatens to undermine not only employment, but personal liberty and due process, as Ned Desmond’s recent First Things article explains. This cannot end well.
Contrast these frightening developments with that quiet third-story room in which I watched my grandmother waste away. I spoke to her and touched her, while she stared quietly, perhaps mournfully, at a blank wall. Some member of the facility staff had taken the time to paint her fingernails—a curious thing, given that my grandmother’s dementia was so pronounced she doubtless was unaware of such trivial aesthetic features. And yet someone, lovingly, had bothered to beautify my grandmother’s old body even in her final days.
The world that was familiar to my grandmother is seen not only as old, but obsolete. So too her American culture, which prized religious faith, marriage-for-life, and robust civic participation. Yet are these two categories—one technological, the other socio-cultural—equivalent?
Certainly many Americans more-or-less think so. Get married or live with your partner(s); have children or don’t (pets offer a happy replacement); attend church or reject religious affiliation altogether; volunteer in local organizations or join online “communities.” Whatever you choose, they are your personal preferences. But don’t dare attempt to declare some particular lifestyle—and certainly not one based on traditional, archaic principles—as objectively ideal and normative for all Americans. That societal vision, like the milkman, is passé, we are told.
And yet for all of their failures, American generations now receding into the distant historical past understood certain truths we are forgetting. They knew children need the stability of a family with a mother and father. They appreciated the role religion and faith played in orienting people’s lives to what is most important. They understood that individual people—family, immediate neighbors, total strangers—possess inherent dignity that demanded respect.
The goddess memory is the mother of the nine muses, who represent various manifestations of human-crafted beauty. The lesson to be learned from Greek mythology is not that we must remain slavishly tethered to the past. “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation,” said the Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke. Yet the antithesis of this—to pridefully reject our forebears as antiquated and ignorant—is at least equally dangerous. It is to vitiate the many good and noble things bequeathed to us by our ancestors, what has been tried and tested by those who loved and labored for their descendants.
Huxley’s work draws its title from Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “How many goodly creatures are there here!… How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, that has such people in it.” Humans, in all their manifest imperfections, are indeed beautiful, fashioned in the image of their divine creator. My grandmother and the members of her generation seen through old, fading photographs possessed their own dignified goodness and beauty. The same can be said for those immigrant caregivers in my grandmother’s nursing home. Will they too be replaced by AI?
Perhaps someday the things we now esteem so highly—smartphones, vaccines, rocket engines—will all be deemed archaic. Yet the more we view the people that such technology is designed to serve as inconsequential or even obsolete, the closer we approach Huxley’s disastrous dystopia. As the very visible effects of the sexual revolution and the digital age have proved, progress sometimes translates to slavery, if not death. If given the choice, I prefer the old but beautiful. Not only because it’s more likely human, but because it’s more likely true.
Casey Chalk writes about religion and culture issues for The American Conservative and is a contributing editor for the New Oxford Review. He has degrees in history and teaching from the University of Virginia, and a masters in theology from Christendom College.