I first read George Orwell’s 1984 my freshman year in high school. It was not a cheery read. Now, almost six decades later, I have reread it. It hasn’t gotten any cheerier. It is, however, as pertinent today as it was then, and it will be more so tomorrow. Perhaps much more so.
Let’s start with the most obvious and superficial.
Six decades ago, I knew television existed, of course, but my family didn’t own one of those new-fangled devices. Today, if the news I saw on television just a few days ago is accurate, a smart television not only allows you to watch far more than anyone ever could or even want to see, it can also track what you are watching, and—more importantly—it can be hacked by anyone—private party or governmental agency or foreign country—to watch you, just like George Orwell’s “telescreen.”
In 1984, the “telescreen” is virtually everywhere, in homes and businesses, shops and offices, on the streets and in the subways, endlessly extolling the virtues of Big Brother and the Party even as it monitors everyone. Today, surveillance cameras are everywhere in every city and town. Your home monitors, those handy devices that allow you to keep an eye on your kid or your pet, can be hacked by anyone to let him or her or them keep an eye on you. Ditto your wireless home-security system. Your computer’s webcam can watch you, even if the system is, technically, turned off. Do you have Siri, Lexa, Google Assistant, or some other home assistant device? You’re being watched and listened to and your actions are being both monitored and recorded. If you doubt any of this, try asking your device, “Lexa, how do I overthrow the government of the United States,” and see how long it takes for humorless men in suits and sunglasses to show up at your door.
Your smart phone and your car can both be used to track and pinpoint your whereabouts; great if you’re in trouble, not so if you value your privacy. Do you wear a smart watch? It can do things Dick Tracy never dreamed of and, according to a computer-savvy friend who wears one, a bunch of things he doesn’t even understand or know how to use, and he’s a certified computer freak.
And while I know I’m just slightly, just a teensy bit paranoid, I simply can’t help myself: whenever I see an advertisement for one of those vacuum cleaner robots, Roomba or Shark or whatever, all I can think of is Chucky, the serial-killer doll in the 1988 movie, Child’s Play.
(Fade in on a nice, middleclass house filled with up-to-the-minute robotic devices, including a vacuum, in a well-to-do neighborhood. Start with a montage of the ordinary middleclass family that lives there: mom, dad, a boy with a football, a younger sister with a child’s tea set on the lawn. The sense of danger and ultimate doom will build slowly: first, a few of the indoor plants go missing; the daughter’s hamster and the son’s gecko disappear next; then the cat vanishes, leaving only an unpleasant and mysterious smell in the robotic vacuum’s self-cleaning dust bin; finally Dad will return home one evening to find his wife, bleeding and hysterical, clutching the children and perched on the top of the refrigerator, but he will only catch a glimpse of them before he has to fight for his life…)
We have reached that 1984 stage of constant, ubiquitous, monitoring, but have even improved and gone beyond it by mixing it with the “soma” of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Do you doubt me? “Soma” was a drug intended to make everybody happy, to reduce anxiety and foster an illusion of carefree isolation from the stresses of everyday life. Television and social media achieve all that without a pill. Children apparently become addicted to their smart phones and to social media while adults walk into traffic and fall into public fountains. No one would dream of attempting to read a book (1984, for instance) while driving, but texting-while-driving is taken for granted, even if it is illegal. The police estimate more accidents are caused by texting than by drinking these days because apparently texting is even more addictive than alcohol. Television and smart phones are the new soma, the drug that keeps us all happy, and if you’re happy, you won’t bother asking too many awkward questions about the world you live in.
In 1984, there is a rigid class system. That still exists worldwide and will always exist in varying and ever-shifting degrees. Slavery too still exists in multiple parts of the world, China especially, albeit less obviously than in the war zones of Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia. Thought Police are a governmental instrument in 1984 while they seem to have grown up organically in today’s society, expressed in the frenzies of outrage on Twitter and followed by groveling apologies by anyone who might dare to think differently. Doublespeak has always existed, only today’s politicians and the media use it ever more egregiously and blatantly. An endless, distant war drags perpetually on in 1984 as it does in 2019, partly as a means of making people afraid and consequently eager to support the government that protects them, and partly as means of encouraging production—of military goods, not anything for the people. The Party uses and promotes hate—of whichever country it is currently at war with—as the glue to bind people to them, the Party, with mindless hatred of “the other,” a tactic that has existed since pre-history.
1984 became an instant classic when it was written in 1948 (published in 1949) because it was a cautionary tale so horrifying that the message overcame the novel’s shortcomings (character development ranges from nonexistent to rudimentary at best, and long, dusty excerpts from a revolutionary polemic bog down the reader and do nothing to advance the book, artistically or structurally). It remains a classic because almost seventy-five years later the cautionary aspects are still valid and will always remain valid at least until the lion lies down with the lamb, and I wouldn’t hold your breath waiting for that. To quote Orwell, writing of his protagonist, “The best books, he perceived, are those that tell you what you know already.”