Even 60 years after it was written, 1984 remains one of the most lucid meditations on human cruelty. Though many a literary critic would loathe calling 1984 science fiction, strictly speaking that’s what it is: a projection of a plausible future with new technology and new social systems (i.e. speculative objects). 1984 is now twenty five years past. I still consider the book required reading because of its insights on human nature (the focus of literature). But how about technology and social structures?
The Speakwrite and the Ministry of Truth:
Orwell realized the power of physical writing and its ability to clarify an author’s thinking. Hence, all Big Brother sanctioned writing takes place on a speakwrite, or a device that encodes your voice into letters. Today’s speech recognition systems hold up. Moreover, today’s technology is easily capable of doing electronically what Orwell imagined physically. A great deal of “correction” (conforming facts to ideology) takes place in the Ministry of Truth, and as a result millions of physical records have to be recalled. This was something of a stretch but can now easily be done. Should e-readers be the only method of written communication, Big Brother could simply correct all the misinformation on the server side without ever having to recall any physical paper. Constant surveillance would be necessary, however, to make sure no one could be capable of finding physical paper.
The Telescreen and Constant Surveillance:
In 1984 the middle class is under surveillance by a device called a telescreen. This was a combination of a television you watch and a television that watches you. However, no matter how many cameras one has one can only monitor a small population at any given time. The modern world, however, has many new tools at its disposal, including gps trackers, phone taps, email monitoring, social media (imagine being forced to post on facebook so the government could keep tabs on you), etc. The internet has been quite difficult to monitor, but this is based on one thing: there are a great number of countries that would simply balk at this kind of control. This kind of monitoring could only come across if ordinary internet users demanded it.
Orwell’s Continuous Warfare
So what on earth would cause people all over the world to demand their rights be taken away? War. When citizens feel their security is at risk, they seem incredibly willing to give their rights away for security (rights that are rarely given back). The only way to excuse tyranny at home is the prospect of giving in to greater tyranny abroad. So how does apply to modern warfare?
The War on Terror. Is this not a continuous war? Isn’t there always this possibility that some rogue group exists that could get its hands on WMD’s and take millions of American lives? Does this not by definition create continuous war?
The reason our civil rights have managed, in some degree, to maintain themselves is simple: since 9/11 there have been no large scale attacks on our home soil. The “Patriot” Act and the adoption of “enhanced interrogation techniques” (torture) were at their peak in 2002. While many issues have taken or are taking much longer time to resolve than they should, our war on Iraq and the war on liberties back home originated in the panic everyone experienced after 9/11. That we might be attacked again and this time by WMD’s lingered in people’s minds. But the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are/were partially invisible. If you didn’t follow the news and you didn’t know anyone in the war the country might not seem at war. There is/was no draft, no rationing of materials, etc. But most of all, there were no more 9/11’s.
Fortunately these days Americans have wanted to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan. They don’t want to deal with the expense of maintaining a military force multiple continents away. The course of these wars follows one of the traditions of American war, that a difficult war is unpopular unless the opponent poses a real threat.
The Final Fate of Orwell’s 1984.
Orwell’s idea of three powers: Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia, and their endless squabbling seem to fit the United States, Russia, and China respectively. It seems to me that Orwell anticipated much of the Cold War.
What seems missing is environmentalism’s understanding that natural resources are limited and that in the information age censorship has proven difficult even for the most totalitarian states. Not that this undermines 1984’s power, which comes from its examination of cruelty and the political structures that maintain it. 1984 wasn’t going to be a straight forward prediction of the future. It’s more of an allegory, or a speculative object.