Monday, January 12, 2009

brave new world

Playwright William Shakespeare coined the phrase ‘brave new world’ in The Tempest, wherein the sheltered and naïve Miranda declares:

How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world

That has such people in’t!

Later, it was used ironically by Rudyard Kipling in the poem The Gods of the Copybook Headings:

… after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins

When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins …

Most famously, the phrase was again used ironically as the title of a 1932 dystopic novel by Aldous Huxley. The book depicted a nightmarish future society of strictly enforced castes, indoctrination by hypnotic slogans, conspicuous consumption and a lack of acceptance of individualism.

Huxley’s satirical connotation became the dictionary definition. How disturbing, then, to see these three words show up today with no sense of irony whatsoever.

RISMedia’s Real Estate Magazine shares wisdom and advice for real estate firms “Entering a Brave New World.” The online newsletter Dexigner espouses “The Brave New World of ‘Effect Design.’” And The Toronto Star’s theatre critic, Richard Ouzounian, praises with Miranda-like wonder “a series of unique partnerships that are paving the way for a brave new world of multimedia production.”

These writers and publications seem utterly unaware of the phrase’s well-established baggage. Fortunately, others at least acknowledge Huxley’s bleak sense of foreboding.

The Independent’s Dom Joly references “Huxley’s brave new world of robotic surveillance” (though his Huxley is a pet dog and the robotic surveillance involves a collar camera). The Chicago Tribune worries that “the brave new world of street parking ... limited only by the imagination—and thirst for profits—of the free-enterprise system that increasingly is taking over functions performed exclusively until now by the government.” And perhaps most fittingly, the New Haven Register suggests, “Be cautious about genetics’ brave new world.”

These voices, however, are now a minority. Most times the phrase ‘brave new world’ is trotted out, it’s in an attempt to sell a sense of optimism—an attempt that is blissfully ignorant of the phrase’s reference to supposed happiness.


  1. This is an awesome post...
    Never heard of where the phrase came from before. And I don't think I'd ever noticed the point about irony; just took the phrase at face value.

    Thought it really meant "exciting/amazing/fantastic new world".

  2. I'd be happy if writers would stop with the incessant Orwell references ("Big Brother is watching") every time they're doing stories on surveillance in public places. (In Halifax, Metro Transit is installing security cameras on its buses, so I've heard the reference about a dozen times this week.) It's not exactly a misuse in the way writers often misuse "brave new world," but some of the references do rather miss the original point. I heard a news story the other day that said "Metro Transit riders can now feel safer with Big Brother watching." Wasn't Orwell's whole point in Nineteen Eighty-Four that Big Brother's gaze made people feel paranoid, not safe?

  3. Nice! I hadn't realized that after 'brave new world,' even 'big brother' has taken on an air of mindless optimism for some!