Living in Interesting Times — 30 Years Past 1984

How much is our world in 2014 like the 1984 that George Orwell described?

(George Orwell. Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

In other words, how much of our world as it exists now — particularly the technology-saturated Western world — would Orwell recognize as reflecting his cautionary tale?

The television in my living room doesn’t watch me watching it, the way the citizens’ did in the novel, but it certainly has enough electronics to keep track of what I watch and deliver that information to marketers without my being aware of it. And my laptop has a camera that could have been watching me as I typed this blog entry — and it could have done so without my knowledge. In addition, consider the proliferation of closed-circuit TV surveillance cameras in big cities around the world. Orwell might say we were indeed living in the world of his novel.

And remember, his novel was written in 1947-48, and published in 1949.

I can think of a few other parallels between our world today and the dystopia Orwell envisioned:

  • In the novel, Oceania is locked in a near-perpetual war with Eurasia and Eastasia. No matter how hopeful about (or intent we are on) extricating ourselves from the Terror War, it seems likely the terrorists will have different ideas (something I wrote about in my 2002 essay, “Yogi Berra, Polybius, and the Recurring Jihad”). And that says nothing about the rise of Chinese power and the resurgence of Russian ambitions (e.g., their looming presence over Ukraine).
  • In the novel, history is frequently rewritten to excise people and ideas that have fallen out of favor, something that was observable in Orwell’s day especially in the Soviet Union. Today, the ‘Net and its archives may prevent that kind of complete removal, but here in the U.S. some “progressive” historical interpretations are changing the perceptions of our traditional heroes — history being rewritten not to excise, but to diminish, people and ideas no longer favored.
  • In the U.S. recently we have seen a lot of animus toward the “top 1%” as well as emphasis on the shrinking middle class and the expanding ranks of people dependent on the government for their support. In some respects this seems to mirror the class structure depicted in the story.

And of course we have Orwell’s famous concept of “doublethink,” which we encounter almost daily at both ends of our political spectrum. Especially with respect to the idea of personal liberty, many people at either end seem simultaneously to support and resist personal freedom; or perhaps those who support all personal freedoms equally, from bearing arms to abortion, just don’t attract much attention.

What do you think? Even though it’s 2014, are we close to 1984?

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2 Responses to Living in Interesting Times — 30 Years Past 1984

  1. James Maxey says:

    One major difference is that the government of Big Brother was competent. They had an effective apparatus to monitor and control citizens. Our government has difficulty running a website.

    As for the rewritten history, this isn’t really driven by government. And, in fairness, the history we consider “real” history was most likely just as edited and spun as anything going on today.

    • With that in mind, James, I think I prefer a semi-competent government (or even a nearly-incompetent one) to one that could be so ruthlessly competent.

      I don’t remember who it was who observed that history is written by the victors: sometimes to aggrandize, sometimes to justify, sometimes to confess. I don’t make any claims to its accuracy, though I have to believe that those closer to events had a better view of them, even if it was colored by their own preconceptions and purposes. I’m not sure what it says that so many today want to revisit and revise; it seems sometimes that they’re ashamed of being associated with the victors.

      Great points, thanks!