1984 showed us a terrifying dystopian world. In some areas, we are closer to that world today than we think.
George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, or 1984, is one of the greatest works of literature of the 20th century. Its greatness lies in the fact that it is oppressive and frightening, but it is also an exciting page-turner with a profound message: you don’t want ever to be living in the world depicted in the book.
We passed the year 1984 a while back, but that doesn’t mean we have averted all the risks written about in the book (fun fact: the publishing year of the book, 1949, was closer to the year 1984 than we are now, in 2022, which makes me feel old).
Some of the things told in the story seem far-fetched today and won’t probably ever happen. On the other hand, Orwell would have found some of the surveillance techniques we are suffering today shocking. We aren’t suffering the same level of surveillance the protagonist, Winston Smith, did. Still, we are having to bear other, in some cases even more insidious, situations of surveillance and social control.
1984, the original work
As the British literary critic Sir Victor S. Pritchett stated when reviewing the book:
“I do not think I have ever read a novel more frightening and depressing; and yet, such are the originality, the suspense, the speed of writing and withering indignation that it is impossible to put the book down.”
It is, indeed, a highly depressing page-turner. The world depicted in 1984 is one in which people are not free to think. A powerful central government dominates the lives of its citizens through strict control of what they are allowed to say and feel, or even the relationships they are allowed to have.
This is made possible through the use of different methods. The first one is intrusive surveillance. Everybody in the middle classes has a camera in their homes and is constantly watched, or feel they are continuously watched, which amounts to the same for the watched – see the Panopticon.
The second one is control of the language and the main narrative in society. The Ministry of Truth controls the discourse and the language that is allowed. It prohibits certain words and encourages others. Through language, they control thought.
If this weren’t enough, there is a third way to control thought: through the manipulation of history. The protagonist, Winston, works in the Ministry of Truth, where history, as it happened, is constantly erased, played with, manipulated and modified to fit with the desired narrative of the time.
These control measures are justified by a constant state of war. The world has three superpowers: Oceania, where Winston lives, Eurasia and Eastasia. All three are too big to be destroyed by the other two, even if allied, so they fare a continuous and never-ending war against each other, which allows them to keep their populations on their toes.
Although these three governments are selling the war to their populations as a clash between different ideologies, they all live by the same totalitarian model. Winston’s lover, Julia, even questions the fact that the war exists. She thinks the attacks and bombardments they periodically suffer are orchestrated by their own government to use them as acts of propaganda.
A frightening world
The world Winston and Julia inhabit is a frightening one. Orwell used Stalin’s communist USSR and Hitler’s Nazi states as models for the world he depicted. His was a wake-up call to avoid having a totalitarian future where we would all live in oppressive states from which it was impossible to escape.
Totalitarian dystopian stories make me shudder, but thankfully we are far from living in such a world, but are we? I’m not so sure Orwell would agree. Most people, at least in the West and in many other countries, would consider that we are not living in any totalitarian surveillance state. We live in the Free World, after all, but how true is this?
We don’t live exactly in the frightening world so masterfully depicted by Orwell in 1984. Still, today’s governments and corporations have surveillance technologies Orwell’s Ministry of Love (the one dedicated to surveillance and torture) could only dream of. You could argue that they don’t use the crude surveillance and truth-erasing methods of 1984 because they don’t need to, as they have more powerful technology available today.
We can all agree that we are not living in totalitarian states, and we have some semblance of democracy and a working market economy, but if we come to the surveillance part, our current situation could arguably be worse than the one depicted in 1984. We are living in what the author Shoshana Zuboff labelled Surveillance Capitalism.
Surveillance Capitalism, the new Big Brother
Something Orwell couldn’t have predicted in 1949 is the rise of the Internet and the fact that we would spend hours every day glued to a plastic device called a smartphone. In 1984 there was a screen in each house that worked in both directions: it worked like a TV set where the government could send messages and communicate with the household members, but it also had a camera that recorded everything that happened in the house. Hence, people felt watched all the time.
In 2022, we don’t need such cranky devices. Our lives happen increasingly online, in the digital realm, and we willingly give data about our preferences and have our private conversations online with our friends and family. We willingly and freely provide masses of personal data to private companies and sometimes governments.
The world in 1984 is oppressive, but today we let ourselves be watched for some free content or services. As the Silicon Valley motto goes: “if something is for free, you are the product”. In the surveillance capitalism studied by Zhuboff, the main commodity is data, our data, and companies are doing everything they can to capture it.
Apple, Google, Facebook and the likes have access to all your online conversations and searches, while Alexa is listening to your conversations at home, and many companies are spying on their home-working employees. Unfortunately, this is not a vice only corporations indulge in; governments are also prone to do it. There has been plenty of news about the Israeli NSO Pegasus software that governments use to spy on their citizens. In some cases, like in Spain, spooks have spied on opposition politicians and even their government members.
This is surveillance at its most flagrant. As we have discussed before (here and here), it is one of the main issues in today’s society. What would Orwell make of all of this?
What if Orwell had written 1984 today?
If Orwell had written his book today and had called it 2084 instead of 1984, a few things would probably be different. The primary means used for spying and surveillance would be the smartphone and the Internet, not a camera hanging from a wall in people’s houses.
Surveillance would be less “in your face” and more subtle, as it is already happening today. Orwell would probably be able to imagine something even more perverse for the far future of the 2080s, but sadly (or happily) we’ll never know what would that look like.
Orwell wrote 1984 on the back of the World War II tragedy, the nightmare of the Nazi regime and Stalin’s gulags, so his main concern was to avoid those horrors happening again. The world depicted in Nineteen Eighty-Four was a totalitarian horror. If he were to write the novel today, I think he’d highlight the surveillance aspect of it and how reality is created, shaped and changed through language and control over the narrative, but maybe the totalitarian streaks in the novel would be more subdued.
2084 would be a world where all our thoughts are watched and controlled, and there is no dissent. It would still be a totalitarian world, but the citizens wouldn’t be aware of it. It would be more subtle and hidden than in 1984, and just because of that, much scarier and probably more effective for those making the controlling over the controlled.
This brings us to an essential aspect of the debate on surveillance and social control: what is more effective, to be harsh and brutal, or be nice and make people artificially happy? Who wins, 1984 or Brave New World?
1984 vs Brave New World
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is often compared to 1984. Both novels depict societies tightly controlled by a central government. Still, whereas in 1984, this control is exercised through force, mind control and fear, in Brave New World, the means used are genetic engineering, pleasure, and recreational drugs.
Huxley wrote a letter to Orwell after he published Nineteen Eighty-Four, explaining why he thought pleasure was more effective for social control and, therefore, more likely to be used by totalitarian governments in the future.
He wrote thus:
“Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World.
Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience.”
Huxley’s arguments sound compelling, but the jury is still out in this one. Today traces of both models coexist in different government models across the world.
Communist countries like North Korea, and to some degree China, and countries led by strongmen such as Russia, are close to Orwell’s model based on brute force, surveillance and intimidation. On the other hand, Western countries follow the path Huxley exposes, where hedonism, pleasure and instant gratification are values people pursue daily, often sacrificing everything else and thus making them easier to control. To top it up, this continuous quest for pleasure isn’t making them closer to achieving any sort of meaningful happiness and contentment.
A mix of two dystopias
No country in the world is replaying the Orwell model entirely. There is no Thought Police, and language and history aren’t being erased and reinvented as thoroughly as in the novel. However, the surveillance we live under and suffer every day is much higher than whatever Orwell could have imagined seventy-odd years ago, both in communist countries and liberal democracies alike.
CCTV cameras in the cities record our faces hundreds of times daily, and all this data is sorted and organised via AI-enabled facial recognition programs. Our internet surfing data is monitored, amassed and sold, and our online conversations are listened to and spied on by both corporations and governments. The worst is that we seem not to care as long as we get free internet services and other cheap online perks.
We are falling into a world that is a mix of 1984 and Brave New World, without realising it. We seem to be blissfully unaware of what is happening to us. Let’s hope it is not too late to change things so we don’t all end up living in a nightmarish dystopia well before we get to the year 2084.