It’s Not 1984, And Yet…

I recently finished the book 1984. Technically it was a re-read, since I’d read it many years ago in high school, as, I suspect, many of my generation were required to.

There’s been a renewed interest in the book due to the current political climate, and sales have been soaring, putting it back on the best seller list at many book stores. I’ll admit I did my part – purchasing the book again simply to increase the attention that it so deserves.

As I read it I was heartened by what was no longer relevant. And yet, on further reflection, it raised enough analogous issues that could still apply to remain an appropriately cautionary tale.

“Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past” – Party Slogan

One of the concepts fundamental to the world of 1984 is that history can be rewritten. The protagonist — Winston Smith — actually works in the Ministry of Truth where his job, and the jobs of untold others, is to literally rewrite the history books so as to match the current desired reality. People are regularly written out of history completely, for example, when they later disappear due to the Party’s having decided they needed elimination. The result is as if they never existed, and much of Winston’s internal struggle surrounds this very concept: if there’s no trace that cannot be altered, and no memory that cannot be controlled or called into question, is “history” a real thing at all?

This basic premise of being able to control all written word, both the authoritative history books, as well as the news of the day, is something that would seem nearly impossible with today’s technology. Almost all information can be readily archived and copied and saved away so as to provide an indelible record of what once was. The thought of re-writing even a single history book is simply unachievable, given the volume of information involved, the number of copies that would need to be altered, the vast distribution of all those copies, and the ease of making additional copies as needed. Multiply that by all books and records covering the desired topic, and the goal is clearly insurmountable.

The concept of controlling the past, or even the present, by manipulating some authoritative record of it seems patently absurd.

And yet…

We seem to have just the opposite. Instead of a single authoritative source of information for either history or current events, we have thousands upon thousands. The catch is that they don’t necessarily agree. Multiple records of the same events are colored with differing descriptions, interpretations, and opinions.

The net result is that instead of a single party controlling the canonical definition of the past and present, we have multiple competing sources of influence each promoting their own version of events. The net result is twofold: those who choose to agree continue to agree with whatever version they choose, and those who are unsure are simply confused. Nowhere is there a readily available, easily identifiable, objective source, just lots of “alt” sources.

We don’t need to control information as in 1984. Today it’s easier just to call it into question so that no one knows what to believe. Individuals end up choosing what to believe from a variety of options, regardless of veracity.

Every citizen, or at least every citizen important enough to be worth watching, could be kept for twenty-four hours a day under the eyes of the police and in the sound of official propaganda, with all other channels of communication closed.

The world of 1984 is a surveillance state. Privacy is nonexistent. Not only does your TV watch you, but the populace is rife with spies and Party loyalists ready to report any aberrant behaviour or thought. Indeed, improper thoughts have themselves been informally outlawed by virtue of what can only be described as mass psychological warfare on behalf of the party and its “Thought Police”. The ability to communicate freely with others has been curtailed – both technologically, and psychologically.

There’s certainly no shortage of ways to communicate and diversity of opinion today. People can, and do, exchange information and ideas using a wide variety of tools. I think it’s safe to say that not only can almost anyone on the planet reach out to just about anyone else, they can say and share pretty much anything that they might want to, within reason.

And yet…

Governments clearly don’t like that, and are more-or-less constantly trying to find ways to insert themselves — or, rather, their ears — into the conversations we might have. Be it China’s great firewall, or London’s surveillance cameras, ISPs that can monitor your internet traffic, or several government’s bone-headed attempt to force encryption back-doors (hint: it can’t work), personal privacy feels like it’s under an ever-increasing threat.

“War is Peace” – Party slogan

In 1984 three massive nation-states are in a constant war with ever shifting allegiance. Oceania, Winston’s home, is at war with Eurasia, and has always been at war with Eurasia — until it’s at war with Eastasia, and has always been at war with Eastasia (see comments on controlling the past, above). This state of constant war is explained by an excerpt of a book-within-a-book, “The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism”, supposedly written by Big Brother’s nemesis, Emmanuel Goldstein. Quoting: “The essential act of war is destruction, not necessarily of human lives, but of the products of human labour. War is a way of shattering to pieces, or pouring into the stratosphere, or sinking in the depths of the sea, materials which might otherwise be used to make the masses too comfortable, and hence, in the long run, too intelligent.”

On one hand this doesn’t seem like something we worry about much today. In most of the first world, I would argue, the masses are comfortable and intelligent. At the very least I believe that they have the opportunity to achieve a basic level of comfort beyond what is described as the norm in 1984.

And yet…

It’s hard not to consider this possibility perhaps the most seriously of all. Not that war is used to keep the populace from achieving some level of prosperity — though I suspect that’s the case in some countries, just not most — but rather that it is perhaps used a little too frequently as a convenient distraction from other important issues like corruption and malfeasance. With ongoing warfare in various parts of the world that never seems to go away, with countries like the United States often playing a role — welcome or not — in those efforts, it’s not at all unreasonable to wonder.

1984The good news, if you want to call it that, is that due to the plethora of information available it’s difficult to completely distract. The bad news, however, is that due to the plethora of information sources, it’s difficult to separate fact from fiction, truth from spin, distracting slight of hand from the magician’s actual goals.

2 + 2 = 5

While the specifics of 1984 may not have stood the test of time, the overarching story of oppressive governments and control of the populace through misinformation (“alt-facts”, if you like) and misdirection (look! over there! a missile!) remains as relevant as ever.

I do encourage a read, or a re-read as the case might be. Chances are, like me, you’ll be simultaneously encouraged and, perhaps, a little bit depressed.

Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.

1984 by George Orwell

Header image: By Jordan L’Hôte (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons