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Is It 1984?

With the headlines full of accusations of government spying on its own citizens, a popular topic for editorials and even features articles is that “we are living in 1984”.  Of course, 1984 is the classic novel written by George Orwell and published in 1949.  If you’ve never read the book or read it years ago (perhaps against your will) as a high school student, some of these articles may even sound good.  In the interest of full disclosure, 1984 is certainly one of my Top 10 favorite books ever written.  Just like you can perhaps quote from your favorite movie, I can quote from this book.

There is no question that George Orwell was an excellent writer and it is easy to imagine the dystopian future he describes so vividly.  The main thing I wonder in reading these types of pieces is “did the writer ever actually read the book and if so did they remotely understand it?”  Admittedly, 1984 is not an easy read; to really “get it” it must be read a number of times.  Even then I am quite sure I could get into endless debates with fellow readers about the meaning.  One thing I am quite sure of however is that one thing no thoughtful reader would conclude is that “we are now living in 1984”.  The whole basis for the “we are living in 1984” claim revolves around alleged (ok, maybe not so alleged in some cases) government surveillance which of course was a prominent feature in the book.  The thing is that there is so much more to the world of “1984” that must be considered.  Let’s for a minute make the assumption that we are all under total surveillance at all times (check out my thoughts on internet privacy here).  We are still so far from 1984 that the whole idea that we are living in that world is crazy.  I guess this is in many ways a rant about why people should actually read books.  While I contend that we aren't living in 1984 (hint - I would be in jail for publishing this except that I wouldn't be able to anyway) it could happen if we let it.

The world in 1984 is a perpetual present; there is no past (other than what "the party" tells you - and it is subject to revision) and there is no future.  There are so many elements of "1984" that do not remotely resemble today that I really only have space for a few big ones:

Let’s start out with something easy – genealogy.  Winston Smith doesn’t even know exactly how old he is.  Of course, he isn’t even certain as to what year it is (he thinks the year is 1984).  People go to great extents to both discover and preserve their family histories.  If we were “living in 1984” the government would certainly have eliminated all official records related to this topic and even if they were somehow secretly kept they certainly would not be available to the public.

Newspeak – The “official” language of the party is dubbed Newspeak.  It is basically English that has been condensed to eliminate the nuances that make language so great.  In reality, the lexicon is a constantly evolving thing and words have come and gone (or at least fell into disuse) pretty much since the written word was created.  Yes, the PC crowd has some minor effect on the use of certain language in some situations, but the language is more “alive” today than ever.  Maybe I should take a “selfie” of myself typing this story to prove it.  I‘d say I’d go “twerking”, but I don’t even know what that means “lol”.

Revisionist History – Winston’s job is essentially to revise history and he is good at it.  If “The Party” makes a prediction and they are wrong, they simply go back and change the prediction to make them look as if they nailed it.  If someone for lack of a better term, screws up, they are simply wiped from all records.  We are so far from this that it is hardly worth talking about.  Besides, it’s generally not the government who wants to revise history but groups who have not had shall we say the most sparkling pasts.

Communications – One of the reason the government is able to exert complete control over the population is the complete lack of communications.  Considering the state of worldwide almost instantaneous communications the world of 1984 and 2013 are complete opposites in this respect.  I’m not sure that in 1949 Orwell could imagine how communications would evolve.

Hoarding/Black Market – Winston has trouble obtaining the most basic of consumer needs such as razor blades and even basic clothing.  When was the last time anyone felt the need to stock up on razor blades?  If anything, we have become too dependent on the ability to purchase anything we want whenever we want it.

Living Conditions – Even as a party member, Winston lives in squalid conditions that Orwell vividly describes; in our society, only the absolute poorest among us live in conditions anywhere near what the norm was in Airstrip One.

Constant State of War – Yes, we are in a constant state of war, but not with a defined enemy.  We have the War(s) on (fill in the blank); drugs, poverty, racism, terror, etc.  Our military actions are limited engagements at best, not full scale wars.

Thought Crime – I guess we could just put a fence around the whole country since I don’t know anyone who doesn’t occasionally harbor thoughts that in Winston’s world would find them in the Ministry of Love.  How many people do you know that have been taken away to be reeducated? 

Last but certainly not least is the Orwellian Telescreen that the government uses to closely monitor the population.  Yes, there are surveillance cameras everywhere and maybe the NSA is reading your email; of course 99.9999% of what we do daily is a combination of nonsense and noise (I’m sure the government is interested in the back and forth between me and my doctor’s office about scheduling an appointment or where my wife and I are meeting for lunch). This seems to be the whole key to the claim that we are living in 1984; of course in reality it is paranoia.  The funny thing is that if the lap top I am typing this one is my personal Telescreen, I can simply turn it off, something Winston did not have the ability to do himself.

If anyone is allowing their own personal 1984 to happen, it is for the most part voluntary.  Internet “privacy” is a dream; they don’t call it the “World Wide Web” for nothing you know.

If you have never actually read the book, I highly recommend it.  After all, Ignorance is (definitely not) Strength!

Reviewed - January 10, 2015

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