My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I first read Nineteen Eighty-Four as a sophomore in high school. I understood the novel then as political allegory, a dystopian fantasy of a possible, but unlikely, future. Like many Cold War kids, Oceania seemed to me an alternative future West fallen into the authoritarian trap of the Soviet Union and Communist China. I understood that Orwell wasn’t making a hard prediction about my imminent future. I was ten years old in 1984. None of that stuff had actually happened.
I recently reread Nineteen Eighty-Four expecting to be newly terrified by the prescience of Orwell’s warnings. I was. Big Brother’s authoritarian regime maintains power through a combination of surveillance technologies, willfully impoverished discourse, an infinitely malleable sense of the historical record and a collective surrender of belief in historical truth.
I reread the book thinking the surveillance situation is much worse. Winston has to navigate the omnipresence of bidirectional telescreens on every wall. We carry our own personal surveillance machines in our pockets and dutifully report through the day via social media. The day after I finished reading, I saw my first ad for Facebook’s Portal, which has Muppets happily chatting away through the convenience of smart televisions converted into living room telescreens. Add Siri and Alexa. What can go wrong?
Orwell might not have imagined emoji culture, the gradual transformation of written language into a hieroglyphic soup of images and gifs. If you can’t find a suitable GIF to express a reaction to the news of the day, is your reaction really worth expressing? The Ministry of Truth might admire the efficiency with which we are thinning the dictionary for ourselves.
Finally: history, which deserves its own essay. Impossible to ignore the constant stream of news releases and press statements issuing from the White House saying the President didn’t actually say the thing we all just heard him say. And the ever shifting sand of which countries are allies and which enemies. It is enough to know that we have always been at war and will always be at war. The details of how we are fighting and why change quickly. Who can keep up?
Nineteen Eighty-Four is a book written to unsettle. It does. Most unsettling, in my latest read is the ease with which people adapt to the new situation. Winston grew up in times like our own. He remembers different rules, different norms. He remembers he had a mother who loved him and a sister. He just can’t quite remember what happened to them. Society under Big Brother is a society organized to forget, to be mollified and directed. The privileged adapt most quickly because they have the most to gain.
And so, rereading Nineteen Eighty-Four in 2019, I am thinking less about surveillance tech and government misinformation campaigns and perpetual war. I am thinking about the Two Minute Hate, that purging parade of raw emotion that unites everyone in a blind, patriotic fever. The enemy changes during the rally and no one notices. No one cares. The core values we carry as baseline assumptions for how democratic society operates — social and family bonds, rule of law, civil discourse, the value of dissent — are lost in the span of one generation. It takes one generation raised with new rules, new norms and new language, to create a generation incapable of the habits of thought that make democracy possible. They haven’t actively rejected democratic society. They can no longer imagine it.
Nineteen Eighty-Four is worth a read if you haven’t read it recently. The first half is a little bit of slog. The second half is the stuff of nightmares. Read to be disturbed. Read to become distrustful. Not only of government but distrustful of ourselves.