It’s been a very long time since I last read George Orwell’s most famous work, Nineteen Eighty-Four. I admit that I didn’t reread it for my progress through the reading list, and so I may not be as specific in this review as in some others. Still, the book is famous; and in the era of the NSA, it comes up often enough that it gets revisited frequently in some form or another—therefore I think we’ll manage.
I find it fascinating how, in the past, this book was universally considered to represent the most horrible form of dystopian society. That’s still true, but only on reputation; when people begin to delve into the book, they’re inevitably faced with the fact that we’ve already allowed many of the invasions of privacy that are commonplace therein. Orwell’s ubiquitous screens have been upstaged by smart televisions; the microphones live in our homes nowadays and have names and personalities (hello, Alexa!). We know the NSA and other government agencies are monitoring much of our electronic communications; they’d monitor every bit if they could, and they’re very open about that. It’s for our own good, right? Big Brother said that, too.
There are three reasons why we don’t care, I believe—or at least, we don’t care very much. First, we love the convenience. There’s no question that Alexa and Cortana and our laptops and cell phones and smart TVs make our lives easier, more convenient, and—let’s admit it—more fun. I like the convenience of streaming television when I want it, even if everyone in the chain of provision knows what I’m watching.
Second, we didn’t receive this all at once. The book shocks us because it hits us at once—we didn’t grow up in the dystopian Oceania, and we’re discovering it in a moment. In the real world, our reduction in privacy was a gradual process. It was a very slick move to show us the convenience before we became widely aware of the universal vulnerabilities—like getting us all addicted to heroin before telling us it will destroy our lives. Now, I’m drawing a pretty extreme comparison there; I don’t think having our emails pass through a government net is literally going to kill us all. But, don’t let my hyperbole distract from the fact that there are risks involved.
And third, we aren’t—as a general rule anyway—being oppressed by means of this technology. To that, I am obliged to add an enormous “YET”. Nineteen Eighty-Four protagonist Winston Smith’s life was regulated down to the smallest minutiae, and he was actively punished for any deviation, but that isn’t happening to us. Our choices are certainly manipulated, but we aren’t feeling much pain for it. However, the potential exists for that to change, and a less benign government—which is really saying something when we’re talking about the US government—could easily take advantage of it. It’s in our best interests not to let that happen.
One can find mountains of material treating this subject, so I won’t get any deeper into it here. If you’re reading it, you came for my thoughts on the book, not the political climate. The bottom line is that I found the book terrifying at the time I read it, about twenty-five years ago; I had actual nightmares, and not for the infamous scene with the description of the face-eating rats. I had nightmares about losing such a battle against the world and against the shapeless-but-omnipresent powers represented by Big Brother. Today, though, it’s lost much of its punch, and that is tragically unfortunate. The book has often been compared to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World—mostly unfavorably, if I remember correctly, which is odd as Nineteen Eighty-Four is by far the better-known work in the popular realm. At any rate, we’ll perhaps look more at the comparison when I cover Brave New World, which is also on the list.