Technology advancement and its implications on our world is something avidly discussed since the development of technology began. Over time, a shift in what makes technology advancement worthy of our fear and concern can be observed from such technology-centric apocalyptic texts, which I believe reflects our society’s collective shift in perception of what justifies the concern of technology advancement.
In this essay, I present two texts that I will be analysing: Aldous Huxley’s 1931 Brave New World, and Elysium (2013), written and directed by Neill Blomkamp. Both texts depict technology and the apocalypse, and in the process scrutinise technology under negative light. Brave New World present a satire of a utopic, post-apocalyptic world, formed from the aftermath of the Nine Years’ War, a time of suffering characterised by chemical and biological warfare and economic crisis. Forced to decide between “World control and destruction”, the masses chose the former, allowing for the creation of the ‘World State’. Powerful technology is applied to all of earth, allowing for the achievement of stability, productivity, and the eradication of old age and illness, but at the expense of human individualism and equality. Elysium also portrays a time of unparalleled technology advancement in 2154, where earth is overpopulated, ravaged by disease, and heavily polluted. Turning to technology, the rich are able to escape the dire situation by creating Elysium, a gigantic space habitat in Earth’s orbit, equipped with technology capable of curing all diseases, combating ageing, and regenerating body parts; in essence a utopia, similar to that in Brave New World. However, the poor are left behind to live in a perpetual state of poverty and salvation, with little medical care and technology. This disparity results in a long-running feud between Elysium and Earth that turns violent, a theme that runs throughout the entire movie.
Both texts touch on technology as a viable way for societies to escape human problems, and then proceed to clarify its imperfection as a solution by illustrating similar consequences. However, there exists disparity between the two texts with regards to the reason behind the failure of technology as a solution. Brave New World, written in 1931, a time of unprecedented technological development and discovery, directs its worries to the nature of technology: its ability to push the boundaries of possibility and therefore illicit unprecedented changes on society. On the other hand, Elysium, a movie made in the 21st century, places much of its emphasis on the destructive way technology is wielded by its creator, humans. This difference in factor that contributes to the detriments of technology on society can be said to reflect a shift over time in societal perspective of what justifies our concerns for technology advancement. I therefore contend that the disparity between these two texts reflects our growing scepticism of human ability to utilise technology for good. This essay will examine the negative effects of technology on society in both texts, and compare the differences in factors from which the negative consequences stem from. This comparison will allow me to then illustrate that increasingly so, our fear of technology stems from our cynicism of human use of technology.
Technology, in both texts, is illustrated as capable of bringing about positive change, or in this context, alleviating the respective imminent apocalypse in the two texts. The changes it brings to society, however, ultimately lead to an entirely new apocalypse: the regression of the human society, done through the worsening of inequality and dehumanisation of the masses in both texts. Brave New World sees the advent of a technology-centric new world characterised by stability and happiness, in place of a crisis-laden and war-filled one. However, the paradoxical nature of this utopia is vividly brought out in the novel. There exists a caste system that reinforces inequality through genetic technology by creating people’s “inescapable social destiny”, as well as the reduction of humans to mass-produced, uniform amenities through cloning, creating a peaceful and productive, but dehumanised society. Similarly, Elysium portrays technology as the saving grace of the rich, allowing them to escape the grim landscape of earth. However, the future world portrayed in Elysium is one characterised by huge disparity between social classes, as the poor has no access to the advanced technology. At the same time, we can see the dehumanisation of the poor, through their ever-deteriorating living condition, with dilapidated houses and streets, lack of medical provisions, and hostile treatment by robot polices.
These two texts, sharing similar discontent and worries of implication of technological advancement, at first glance serves to highlight the timeless nature of societies’ struggle with implications of technological advancement. Further examination of the two texts would however yield differences in factor from which the consequences stem from. The consequences we see in Elysium is a direct result of human intentions realised and made possible by technological advancement. Fully capable of providing salvation for the poorer people on earth, the rich, with the power of technology in their hands, choose to create a physical barrier between themselves and the poor, in the form of the space habitat Elysium. This enables the rich to better impose exclusivity of advanced technology, worsening inequality. The rich on Elysium then goes on to dehumanise the poor, by denying them of much needed resources and exploiting them for labour in poor work conditions. Brave New World, on the other hand, places the blame mainly on the nature of technology, or its ability to redefine possibility and therefore subvert the works and functions of our current society. It illustrates a society that functions entirely on technology, in no way close to our current one: technological advancement allows the proliferation of the caste system and therefore a peaceful and productive society, while citizens, cloned to be uniform in identity and purpose, are trapped in mindless consumption of technology-centric activities in the World State.
As the two texts chose to feature different factors behind what made technology an imperfect solution, we see a shift in what the texts believe justifies societal concerns of technology: from the fear of technology’s ability to completely change the world we live in, as put forth by Brave New World (1931), to the fear of human immorality when it comes to utilisation of advanced technology in Elysium (2013). An analysis of textual details will further reinforce this assertion. Brave New World has a greater focus on the ability of technology to impose huge or extreme changes to society, by describing to readers in detail, the distasteful technological processes vital to the World State. The novel dedicates chapters to the descriptive tour of the ‘Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre’, where the entire technological process for the manufacturing of citizens is laid out for readers in morbid details: from human cloning technique, the rapid maturation of eggs in harvested ovaries, to the prenatal conditioning of foetuses. The factual description of technological innovations serves to invoke in readers distaste for such potential change technology can bring to societies. Brave New World also portrays human nature in a much less sinister way, by justifying the use of technology, as well as portraying those wielding technological power to be reasonable in the application of technology on society. Faced with the Nine-Year War, the world controllers in Brave New World had good intentions of unifying the world with technology, with the consent of the majority of people. The negative outcomes are portrayed more as trade-offs in a world characterised by peace and stability: the inevitable elimination of individuality to prevent conflicts; the complete abandonment of the idea of equality to ensures people perform their assigned societal role with utmost fidelity. Furthermore, the world controllers did attempt to mitigate the downsides of this new world by keeping the population in trance like state of happiness, with free and unlimited provision of ‘soma’, a drug that induces happiness, albeit superficial. The novel also chooses to portray Mustapha Mond, one of the ten world controllers, as a rational decision maker, and as someone readers can sympathise with: to achieve this ‘technotopia’, he too had to sacrifice his passion for science, which is deemed incompatible in the World State where conventional wisdom cannot be undermined by the search of truth in science. This works to shift readers’ attention more towards the dangerous ability of technology to illicit unprecedented changes to society, rather than human immorality in technology use.
The screenplay of Elysium, however, focuses very much on immoral human nature when technological power is in play. The movies’ choice to match immoral agenda to characters that hold substantial power over technology reinforce its message of the terrors of human nature when it comes to technology use. Defence Secretary Jessica Delacourt, a powerful figure on Elysium, is portrayed as ruthless and immoral in her use of defence technology. Early on in the film, in her dealing of illegal immigrants on Elysium, Delacourt chooses to eliminate the ships carrying illegal immigrants by means of shooting them down and killing all of them, instead of sending the ‘standard warning to incoming ships’ and repatriating them, as suggested by her subordinates. In her justification of her actions, she claims, “I am a patriot. I’m the one protecting our children from the great unwashed”, insisting it is her moral duty to exterminate the poor, given her power. Another powerful yet immoral character is John Carlyle, CEO of ArmadyCorp, which produces the robots that police earth. These robots are deliberately programmed to be cruel and inhumane in the treatment of the poor, evident when the robots resort to physical violence after Max, the protagonist of the film, refuses a slight order for a bag check. Viewers are shown the strict nature of penal codes governing the poor, where the mere raising of voice against these robots are deemed as ‘violent anti-social behaviour’ punishable by law. It is chilling for viewers to see how the rich, when given to power to do so, chooses to treat their technological creations more humanely than actual humans. Lastly, Elysium advocates technology use for the greater good, by ending the story with equality restored when Max sacrifices his life to provide every Earth resident the access to Elysium technology. This allows the film to further outline its concerns of amoral human values warping technology use, something societal fear of technological advancement has come to stem from.
“The difference in view point of Brave New World, written nine decades ago, and Elysium, embodies society’s increasing fear and scepticism of human nature in the utilisation of technology.”
The difference in view point of Brave New World, written nine decades ago, and Elysium, embodies society’s increasing fear and scepticism of human nature in the utilisation of technology, as the more recently made Elysium has, as illustrated, greater emphasis on the concerns of human immorality in the advancement of technology. This is justifiably so, as Brave New World was written in a time where new and unprecedented scientific discoveries in genetics coincides with the development of medical technology, in which Huxley materialises the trepidation of trekking into the unknown, unexplored depths of evolutionary technology. It is concerned with technology’s ability to redefine what is impossible, therefore the portrayal of an impossible world made possible by technology, the World state. Elysium, on the other hand, is a film of the 21st century: society has seen the come and go of many technological tools, and has come to fear less of the change technology advancement can impose on society, but more of how human morality is a concern in the use of technology advancement. This 21st century perception of technology is reflected in Elysium, where it focuses intently on the effects of human exploitation of technology, ultimately projecting cynicism of human nature when it comes to technology use.
Over the years, our societies has undergone many transformations under technology, and will continue to do so in the future. Our fear and concern for this future, perhaps is increasingly stemming from our scepticism of humans to do good with technology, and a result of our pessimistic stance on our ability to use technology for the greater good. At the very least, our current level of awareness and concern for the advancement of technology provides me the assurance that it is not any time soon that our society will end up as the ones portrayed in Brave New World and Elysium.
Huxley, A. (1932). Brave New World. London: Chatto & Windus.
Blomkamp, N. (Director). (2013). Elysium [Motion picture]. Los Angeles: Tristar Pictures.
Author: Gan Ke Ching