Nineteen Eighty-Four | Goodreads Review

Nineteen Eighty-FourNineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

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.

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I got flashed.

A few weeks ago, I got flashed. It happened on September 22 at 7:21am. I was driving to work, minding my own business, not hurting anyone. I was on the turnpike in front of the high school. It was still dark outside and my mind was turning around the things I needed to do at work that day. NPR was on the radio. I took a sip of coffee, but before I could even swallow it happened.

I got flashed.

A week later I received my traffic ticket in the mail. A $50 fine for traveling 32 in a 20. This was 7:21am in the morning. It was a school zone. The flash was from the silent sentry, the City of Oak Ridge Photo Enforcement Program.

My town has been doing the photo enforcement thing for about two years now. They went up at three major intersections to increase road safety after a middle school girl was run over by a school bus on her way home from school.

It was hard to debate the merits of increased traffic safety. A few libertarian types cried foul and posted yard signs admonishing no one in particular to “Obey the Constitution. Kill the Traffic Cameras.” Every now and then you see a bumper sticker that says something about illegal revenue cameras. A few people raised privacy concerns, though was privacy entitlements exist while driving along the 3 major roads in town weren’t well expressed.

In general, the cameras went up and no one really freaked out too much. I was actually surprised by how little I minded them being there. The cameras have made me a better driver. I am more mindful of my speed when rolling through school zones or across the city center during the middle of the day. There’s nothing wrong, to my mind, with a safety enforcement measure that makes me focus more on being safe than on looking for cops to see how fast I should really be going.

And that’s what’s so mystifying about this recent flashing. I got picked up on camera by the Silent Sentry doing 32 in a 20 MPH during school zone hours. Like most school zones across America, there’s a yellow light that blinks when the 20 MPH limit is in effect. When the light blinks, you drive 20. When the light doesn’t blink, you drive 35.

So, the careful reader will note that I was actually behaving rather well for any other time of day. I was 3 miles per hour under the usual speed limit. And I don’t remember the light flashing. In fact, I actually remember thinking to myself how surprising it was that the light was not flashing at 7:21am on a school morning.

I was being careful. I was being obedient. I was being observant.

And so, when my ticket arrived, I told my wife not to worry. I would simply set a court date and explain that the light was not blinking when I traveled through and, since I was clocked at a speed well under the usual speed limit, it was only right to dismiss my ticket and congratulate me for being a responsible, careful, conscientious driver.

So this evening, I finally decided to review the traffic camera footage online. Just to establish the rightness of my claim. When I watch the video, I see the yellow school zone light was dutifully blinking in the far right of the frame. It blinks 2 or 3 times and then my silver Prius goes whizzing by at a speed much greater than the cars approaching in the other lane.

This is what you call getting busted. This is the mystery of memory. I clearly remember thinking how strange it was that the school zone was not yet in effect as I traveled through. I clearly remember that light not being on and watching my speedometer to be sure I was holding it under the required 35.

I was wrong.

This is why I don’t mind having cameras posted in public areas where obedient drivers can be safer drivers. Because I was traveling too fast at the wrong time of day.

I have friends who argue that these traffic cameras are unconstitutional because they do not allow you to confront your accuser. The erosion of privacy and the automation of law enforcement are certainly things worth worrying about. But I don’t buy the argument that traffic cameras are unconstitutional.

This evening I confronted my accuser. I logged onto a website and watched a 12 second video of myself breaking the law. I confronted my accuser and lost.

I won’t be scheduling that court hearing. I am mailing a check for $50.

Justice prevails.