When, in 1937, George Orwell wanted to convey the dark side of “mechanical progress” to his readers, he wrote, “the logical end of mechanical progress is to reduce the human being to something resembling a brain in a bottle.” Of course, he said, it is not as if that is really our intention, “just as a man who drinks a bottle of whiskey a day does not actually intend to get cirrhosis of the liver.” But that, he argued, is where the socialists of his time seemed to want to take things. Their emphasis on doing away with work, effort and risk would lead to “some frightful subhuman depth of softness and helplessness.”
Now, very nearly eighty years later, we still don’t want to get cirrhosis. But in a review this week of the finally released Oculus Rift virtual-reality gaming system, Adi Robertson writes, “I love the feeling of getting real exercise in a virtual sword-fighting game, or of walking around a real room to see the artwork I’ve created. Sitting down with the Rift, meanwhile, feels as close to being a brain in a jar as humanly possible.” And just in case you might have missed this wonderful endorsement in what is a pretty long review, the “brain in a jar” quote is repeated as a pullout in a large font with purplish text.
So over time the brain in a bottle can become our intention, it can transform from nightmare scenario to selling point. By “progress” do we mean “slippery slope”?