On Orwell’s ‘brains in bottles’
I recently read George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier. I confess that I am terribly late to this book and I have no good reason why: it is a masterpiece. Then again, I am also convinced that all books have a ‘time’ to be read by the reader, and it would appear that this was the right time for me to read this one.
This isn’t a book review, save to say – go read it if you haven’t – it is depressing how many of the conditions affecting working-class lives remain 90 years later: the casualisation of labour, housing struggles, crap food, disbursement of communities, etc. I also recognise many of the difficulties around communication styles I have encountered (especially) in the academy, when he talks about the rough rudeness of the working-class from the perspective of the middle- and upper-classes. On the plus side, I’m proud to be carrying on the solidly working-class tradition of eating cheese off the end of a sharp knife.
Towards the end of the book, Orwell talks about mechanisation and what this will do to society. He is not against mechanisation in the slightest, but he foresees that it will turn humanity into a ‘brain in a bottle’ as we become increasingly divorced from our bodies. This image of a ‘brain in a bottle’ really struck me. My first reaction was to reject the bottle for something more disbursed, but the more I thought about it, I realised that our brains are in bottles: multiple bottles lined up on an array of digital shelves.
What rings true to me, is the way his metaphor indicates that our brains are both caged and on display. I imagine that our brains are in some bottles more than others – bottles on shelves lined ‘the state’, ‘bank’, ‘ISP’, ‘smart meter’, ‘internet of things’, ‘social media’, ‘NHS’, and so forth. I also imagine that one day these shelves will join up, if they have not already, and then we really will be a single brain in a single bottle on display to unknown others. The principal act of resistance is (or will be), to keep as much of our brain as possible private, hidden, and free.
At some point in the process of mechanisation, technology changed from being a tool to help humans control/create/manage the world, to being a tool to control/create/manage humans. Of course, on the one hand, it is impossible for technology to not control/create/manage us; this transformation is inherent in the very idea of technology and is not a necessarily negative thing. Technology changes our lives, and therefore the way we live our lives, and therefore us. We are created anew with the possibilities technology bequeaths us. This can (read: should) be positive, but it often is not, especially if you are poor.
The issue is that where once we took tools upon the world to make our lives easier, now we too are the world upon which the tools act. We both act through, and are acted upon by, technology. The problem is less that we will become physically ‘soft’ as Orwell thought, but rather that technology acts like the typist’s carbon paper: it renders us in duplicate.
We have gone from listening to music in our homes, to telling a corporation (Apple Music, Spotify, etc.) what music we like to listen to, in what way, and when. We have gone from turning on our lights, to telling corporations (Google Nest, Apple Home, and our energy companies via our ‘smart meters’, etc.) when we are home, when we are awake, and what rooms and appliances we are using. We have gone from turning our heating on when we are cold, to allowing the state to control the temperature of our houses.
The problem then, is that we have gone from simply acting on this world, to broadcasting our actions to other/s, and in that broadcast, rendering our previously private actions public. Each piece of ‘connected’ technology is a tiny shovel carefully moving the content and structure of our lives, and hence us, from this world to those shadowy shelves full of brains in bottles. Our actions have become a kind of language of their own; a language turned back on ourselves by those who have access to those shelves, in order to programme us into compliance.
Of course, that is all a product of my own neuroses due to knowing too much about what is done with our ‘consumer data’ (and is why my flat is not ‘smart’). Orwell’s ‘brain in a bottle’ was more about the divergence between the historical need for our bodies (manual labour) and how technology, or mechanisation, would render our bodies obsolete. This is an obvious fact in abundance about us: from the voice activated appliance, to the computer which fixes your car, to the tractor which ploughs a field. Like Orwell, I am not mad about any of this: they are all inevitable aspects of our grappling with the world about us. Like him, I am generally in favour of things getting easier. My issue is that we seem to have accepted that a loss of privacy is inevitable to technological advance, when, as Shoshana Zuboff argued in her magisterial book, it most certainly is not.
I also think this duplicate self that technology has created, this ‘brain in a bottle’, plays out in less obvious ways. For instance, I think it has caused a divergence of brain and body and hence an internalisation and concretisation of the idea of duality: we have been colonised by the idea that we are not one, but two. The idea that mind and matter are distinct is implicit in many people’s actions: from not taking care of their body and believing that ill health is a natural part of aging, to believing that ‘they’ are distinct from their body. The idea that a person can be born into the wrong body is dependent upon the idea that they are not their body in the first place. (I have touched on this elsewhere in respect of gender.) This idea is predicated on a belief that we inhabit our body much as, in Orwell’s metaphor, brains inhabit bottles. Somehow the imprints upon our bodies of the things we have produced, these glass bottles of constraint, have become more real than our bodies themselves.
I don’t want to get too esoteric here, but I think that even if you believe in the idea of a soul or consciousness which exists before/after death, then this does not imply that you are not your body. This soul or consciousness or ‘life force’ which animates us, is the spark which sets alight every cell in our body. It suffuses us; we are bathed in its light or electricity. There is no part of our body which is not it: there can be no duality. Fundamentally, I think the dissociative duality of brain and body is a symptom of ill health.
In the end, I fear that people have intuited the cage of the bottle. They feel it there, constraining their being, their reach, their choices. They feel it pushing down on them with a very subtle coercion, and rather than kicking or pushing back, they have accepted the boundaries and limits it prescribes as reality. The cage is imperfectly shaped – inhumanly shaped – it does not fit quite right. But all these people, they think that they are the problem, they think they need to change themselves to fit the shape of the bottle, rather than smashing the bottle to pieces.