70 years ago, the British writer George Orwell captured the essence of technology in its ability to shape our destinies in his seminal work, 1984. The tragedy of our times is that we have failed to heed his warning.
No matter how many times I read 1984, the feeling of total helplessness and despair that weaves itself throughout Orwell’s masterpiece never fails to take me by surprise. Although usually referred to as a ‘dystopian futuristic novel’, it is actually a horror story on a scale far greater than anything that has emerged from the minds of prolific writers like Stephen King or Dean Koontz. The reason is simple. The nightmare world that the protagonist Winston Smith inhabits, a place called Oceania, is all too easily imaginable. Man, as opposed to some imaginary clown or demon, is the evil monster.
Orwell describes the ubiquitous device as an “oblong metal plaque like a dulled mirror” affixed to the wall that “could be dimmed, but there was no way of shutting it off completely.” Sound familiar? It is through this gadget that the rulers of Oceania are able to monitor the actions of its citizens every minute of every day. At the same time, the denizens of 1984 were never allowed to forget they were living in a totalitarian surveillance state, under the control of the much-feared Thought Police. Massive posters with the slogan ‘Big Brother is Watching You’ were as prevalent as our modern-day advertising billboards. Today, however, such polite warnings about surveillance would seem redundant, as reports of unauthorized spying still gets the occasional lazy nod in the media now and then.
Another method of control alluded to in 1984 fell under a system of speech known as ‘Newspeak’, which attempted to reduce the language to ‘doublethink’, with the ulterior motive of controlling ideas and thoughts. For example, the term ‘joycamp’, a truncated term every bit as euphemistic as the ‘PATRIOT Act’, was used to describe a forced labor camp, whereas a ‘doubleplusgood duckspeaker’ was used to praise an orator who ‘quacked’ correctly with regards to the political situation.
And yes, it gets worse. Just this week, Mark Zuckerberg’s ‘private company’ agreed to give French authorities the“identification data” of Facebook users suspected of spreading ‘hate speech’ on the platform, in what would be an unprecedented move on the part of Silicon Valley.
‘Hate speech’ is precisely one of those delightfully vague, subjective terms with no real meaning that one would expect to find in the Newspeak style guide. Short of threatening the life of a person or persons, individuals should be free to criticize others without fear of reprisal, least of all from the state, which should be in the business of protecting free speech at all cost.
For anyone who entertains expectations for a happy ending in 1984, be prepared for serious disappointment (spoiler alert, for the few who have somehow not read this book). Although Winston Smith manages to finally experience love, the brief romance – like a delicate flower that was able to take root amid a field of asphalt – is crushed by the authorities with shocking brutality. Not satisfied with merely destroying the relationship, however, Smith is forced to betray his ‘Julia’ after undergoing the worst imaginable torture at the ‘Ministry of Love’.
An awful lot is riding on our answers to those questions, and time is running out.