Fear of The Feelies

The Feelies

In Brave New World, first published in 1931, Aldous Huxley imagines a world 500 years from now of quantitatively perfected humanity - eugenically ordered, emotionally stabilised through the use of the drug soma and afforded carnal and 'earthly' pleasures in place of emotional commitment. In this potential future of battery-sapiens one of the less sexually motivated forms of entertainment comes in the shape of the 'feelie.'

Linda takes John, the savage outsider of the Brave New World, to the 'feelies' for the first time. Stills from the 1980 bbc TV film.

The 'feelie' or 'feely' is an obvious extrapolation on the part of Huxley of his belief of what the talkie, or movie might become. Huxley, and others of his time, feared that cinema was a hugely distracting element,which would prevent people from reflecting or being critical of what they consumed from it, making it a perfect tool for manipulation and sedation by a sinister government or other agency.

The addiction and the power of the feelies lies in their ability for giving gratification. Marshall McLuhan might call it a super-hot media - it immerses all the senses without demanding any critical reflection from the user. The narrator's voice is programmed to 'achieve an automatic erotic effect that has reduced the lips of all the individual audience members to just so many facial erogenous zones.' Later, when John Savage, an outsider in the Brave New World, complains that he prefers Shakespeare to the feelies because they 'don't mean anything' he is assured that 'they mean a lot of agreeable sensations for the audience.' Why would we want to extend ourselves over a lengthy narrative requiring a lot of cognitive effort and critical thought when we can get the prescribed thrills we need from the feelies?

Huxley, of course, implies that by immersing ourselves in media that are non-reflective, we ourselves become more docile, less reflective and less questioning and this becomes clear when Alphas from the Brave New World are exposed to poetry, music and Shakespeare by the savage and are subsequently forced into exile to avoid upsetting the tenuous grip the technostate has over human creativity and desire.

Montag observes a televisor from afar in the 1966 film adaptation of 451

Ray Bradbury takes Huxley's idea to an even more extreme level. In his novel, Farhenheit 451 books are not only hidden or discouraged but actively banned, with teams of government workers incinerating books and arts bonfire of the vanities style. 451 was first published in 1951, by this stage most of America and indeed, the first world had a television in their homes, and it was around this time that PR, psychology and advertising were beginning to take propagandist ideas, primarily under the leadership of Edward Bernays and apply it through the medium of television to sell products and ideas to the American people. In Huxley's nightmare vision, the home is filled with 'parlor televisors' - wall screens that the user can interact with viewers by offering primitve cues for scripts or that simply bombard the viewer with abstract images, much like Huxley's 'Three Weeks in a Heli Rocket.'
On one wall a woman smiled and drank orange juice simultaneously. How does she do both at once? thought Montag, insanely. In the other walls an x-ray of the same woman revealed the contracting journey of the refreshing beverage on its way to her delighted stomach!

Abruptly the room took off on a rocket flight into the clouds, it plunged into a lime-green sea where blue fish ate red and yellow fish. A minute later, Three White Cartoon Clowns chopped off each other's limbs to the accompaniment of immense incoming tides of laughter. Two minutes more and the room whipped out of town to the jet cars wildly circling an arena, bashing and backing up and bashing each other again. Montag saw a number of bodies fly in the air.
Subsequently, Montag, the character beginning to question the world around him, turns the screens off and tries to engage the three female viewers in conversation about an impeding wold war for which they seem ignorant, impervious and unmoved - 'it's always somebody else's husband who dies.'

Huxley and Bradbury both believed that film and television could be (and in some ways Bradbury was right) used by sinister agencies to control and sedate the populace, supplying them with a cacophony of gratification and carefully calculated visual-chemical clues to subdue any dissent and silence critical thought. They were a direct propaganda machine.

In both instances, the book is the antithesis to the subversive new technology. In Huxley's work, John Savage, educated by Shakespeare, simply cannot accept the unquestioning inhumanity of the Brave New World. Montag sees that the televisors are evil because they 'create an environment as real as the world.' Books allow one to stop and reflect - to 'shut them and say "Hold on a moment!"'

Psychological Playground

In 1884, Henry James published an article in Longmans Journal that has since been remembered as one of the great literary essays - The Art of Fiction. In the essay, he posited that a novel is a 'direct impression of life.' A few weeks later, Robert Louis Stevenson, at the time an obscure children's book author sent a little-known reply:
No art is true in this sense: none can "compete with life"...Life is monstrous, infinite, illogical, abrupt and poignant; a work of art, in comparison, is neat, finite, self-contained, rational, flowing and emasculate. Life imposes by brute energy, like inarticulate thunder; art catches the ear, among the far louder noises of experience, like an air artificially made by a discreet musician.
Art, and the novel, insisted Stevenson, and before him Shakespeare and after him, almost everyone else, is an abstract of life. Keith Oatley writes in his book of fiction psychology that 'Straight lines and circles do not exist in the physical world, but now they have been invented, we cannot do without them. They are abstract, they exist in model worlds.' Oatley's argument is that fiction and the narratives we use to entertain ourselves are not and never will be like the feelies or the televisors because fiction is a model which allows us space to reflect and that is something, as humans, we crave more than gratification and addiction. Although we can be addicts of instant gratification as Nicholas Carr eruditely outlines in The Shallows, we need space to reflect, to consider ourselves.

Oatley's definition of fiction is that of a 'psychological playground' where we can imagine what-if scenarios and put ourselves in the positions of the characters. As we have written and grown and also has science has progressed, these what-ifs and narratives have become more and more entwined and complex leading us to greater conundrums of critical thinking about ourselves.
It provides a safe space with which to confront disturbing feelings we would otherwise suppress; it allows us to recognize our most threatening fantasies without becoming paralyzed by them. - Janet Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck


Fiction is a model, not an immersive reflection or paralysing fantasy. With the dawn of the internet in the late eighties and early nineties, as well as the promise and fears around virtual reality technology, a whole host of nightmarish scenarios, extrapolating further from Huxleyan ideas were put forward. In William Gibson's Neuromancer (1984) users of a fictional 'cybespace' (a word Gibson invented himself) 'jack-in' in search of 'simstim', a soma equivalent. Here, cyberspace has been used to sedate and addict people to a gratification. The Lawnomwer Man (1992) is a Frankensteinian film set in virtual reality in which the monster's virtually augmented brain commences a killing spree in search of the gratification needed to sate his desires for data.

The Lawnmower Man

With every successive leap forward in technology have come sinister predictions of how it might be used. Visions of a dumb-struck, docile human race entertained by video games and celebrity gossip via Twitter or voyeuristic immersion in Facebook constantly appear now as potential harbingers of the demise of critical thought and reflection.

So far, none of these have come to pass, although Susan Greenfield and Nicholas Carr would posit that the internet and the pervasiveness of digital technology is making us, essentially, stupider. In a recent interview with New Scientist, Greenfield bombarded the interviewer with references to papers linking digital technology with all sorts of disorders of attention and addiction, and it's probably true that it is impacting our lives, but just like Huxley, Gibson, Bradbury and all the others, it represents an extreme view - a worst-case scenario that affects a minority and an important one to bear in mind but not the end-of-the-world as it is so often presented. She stresses that 'it's not the technology itself I'm criticising but how they are used and the extent to which they are used.'

The Holodeck

Greenfield fears that our children, coddled in a Huxleyan digital paradise of gratification and 'hot' stimulus, without exposure to the slower narratives and 'psychological playgrounds' of long form fiction will lose their ability to reflect and be critical of the world around them, that without the ability to play out what-if scenarios in their minds, reflecting on their choices as they go, they will make for poor humans.

This remains to be seen, but dystopian nightmares provide us with a worst-case scenario and then we tend to avoid it. Enough individuals - both scholars and viewers - were critically aware enough of the role of television and film that it never occupied the position of the feelies or televisors despite efforts of advertisers and governments and the internet has yet to turn us all into mindless slaves. Debate is still out over what contemporary narrative actually is today. In these dystopian nightmares, it is all but vanished, seen as dangerous and subversive to the technostate, and with the apparent decline in first world literacy and book sales (both electornic and paper) some such as Greenfield fear we're now voluntarily giving it up. Many, however, argue that it continues, (and this will be something I'll write on later) most plausably, in video games, or hypertext or the narratives we construct around social networking or transmedia storytelling.

I like to imagine that Janet Murray's eponymous Holodeck might be the fictional future of storytelling. In the Star Trek universe, one can interact directly as if improvising a role in a film with the programs of a novel, controlling it's direction, acting out it's scenes. The user the player and main character in a constructed, transient wold based on a template you describe and revolving around you. You are the author, character and reader of this ideal fiction.

Commander Data and Geordie LaForge tend to 'play' Sherlock Holmes holonovels with their time on the holodeck.

This may sound as dangerous as the Huxleyan feelies but in reality, it is far apart. The holonovels, as they are called, retain the key tropes of fiction - they are fantasy and the user is aware of this, they provide the what-if scenario of thought but at a higher level of interactivity and, most importantly, like a reader can pick up a book and open it or close it whenever and wherever they want, they are in total control of the media. The holonovel is exactly the same as a book, only the form has changed. It provides the same stimulus as a novel because it retains the border between reality and the psychological playground and that is something that readers, viewers, users and players will always need.

Janet H. Murray - Hamlet on the Holodeck, 1997,
N. Katherine Hayles - Electronic Literature, 2007,
Nicholas Carr - The Shallows, 2010,
Keith Oatley - Such Stuff as Dream, 2011,
Aldous Huxley - Brave New World, 1931,
Ray Bradbury - Fahrenheit 451, 1951,
William Gibson - Neuromancer, 1984,
Star Trek (various), New Scientist 2823,