Friday, May 17, 2013
© 1949 George Orwell
1984 needs no introduction. Written in 1949, it envisioned a world of constant surveillance, perpetual war, and a state with complete control over people’s minds. Concepts from it – “Big Brother”, “thought police”, and “doublethink” -- appear in pop culture from time to time. Written as a warning, it has gone unheeded. Today, systems of surveillance are more sophisticated than ever, featuring “SmartCameras” that track automatically and signal if they exhibit ‘aberrant’ behavior; meanwhile, SmartPhones like the iphone from Apple allow anyone’s location to be tracked – and governments like that of the United States engage in widespread warrantless wiretapping. Such rampant invasions of privacy are condoned in the name of National Security or convenience, and one wonders when people will say “Enough!”
I read 1984 back in high school, and it was the first work I ever read without an encouraging ending. I found it depressing, and it had that same effect this week, even though what was coming. If you have never read it, or if it has been a while since experiencing the story, it’s one of a man named Winston Smith, who thinks he is the only sane man in the world. Like many others in Airstrip One, an area of a global empire once known as England, he lives a bleak, depressing life. The buildings around him are decaying, the food is terrible, and most manufactured goods are shoddy if available at all. And there are no arts to feed the soul, to give the mind relief from the universe – no culture, no science, not even honest laughter. Smith is miserable, and so is everyone else – but he’s seemingly the only man who knows he is miserable, who knows that life can’t be this bad on accident. But then he chances to find a kindred spirit, and his spirits begin to soar…until they’re captured again, and ground up like so much beef chuck.
What strikes me most about 1984 is the utter inhumanity that people are subjected to. Every aspect of life is Controlled: there is no spontaneity. Even the English language is being steadily reduced, a mighty oak turned into a utility pole stinking of resin. English in its altered form, “Newspeak”, is an engineered tongue, crafted carefully with the intention of making seditious – free and expressive – thought impossible. Virtually everyone live under the constant view and orders of the Telescreen, which not only spews forth propaganda, but issues orders. Under such scrutiny, people live behind masks, constantly managing their faces and preventing any kind of expression, even unguarded eyes, from betraying them to the telescreen. Everything sacred to the human experience – music, family life – is broken and its remnants put to use: children, for instance, spy on their parents. Little wonder that Winston’s greatest acts of defiance comes in having sex in a field: such passion is impossible to govern, which is why the Party seeks to destroy it completely.
How, in 1949, did Orwell manage to predict such supremacy of institutions and machines over men? He had witnessed elements of both already, at work both in totalitarian and democratic states during World War 2, but considering how primitive television was in those days the domination of the telescreen in his work is remarkable. What would Orwell make of the dominance of computers and the internet in our lives, wherein we expose so much of our private selves thinking we are safe…when in reality, every search query into a Google box, every click of the mouse, can be monitored and saved into a database?
1984 is a short work, barely three hundred pages, but it speaks volumes about the human condition. It's never been more important to read than this day and age.