George Orwell’s classic novel foretold a lot, but the manner in which we’ve handed over our personal data to faceless corporatocracies is doubleplus-ungood, says Suzanne Harrington.
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
Seventy years ago, on June 8 1949, the world first read that most ominous first sentence, written by a dying man, typing from his bed on the Hebridean island of Jura, in a fog of cigarette smoke and paraffin fumes even as his lungs choked from tuberculosis.
George Orwell died 227 days after the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and the book went on to become a cultural touchstone, spanning generations and political ideologies. We have all read it, often in our teens while still at school, taking advantage of Orwell’s clear, uncluttered style. It is unforgettable in its nightmarish vision.
It was adapted for the big screen twice, most recently with John Hurt playing Winston Smith, and Richard Burton his Party nemesis O’Brien; that film was released in 1984, the Eurythmics doing the soundtrack. At the time, it still seemed like sinister sci-fi.
The previous movie version was released in 1956, just seven years after the novel was published, with Edmond O’Brien and Michael Redgrave in the main roles — but with Redgrave’s character renamed O’Connor to avoid confusion with the lead actor’s surname.
There have been adaptations for television, opera, ballet, and theatre. In the early 1970s, David Bowie wrote a series of songs inspired by the book, which he wanted to turn into a rock opera.
Sonia Orwell, the author’s second wife, who was the inspiration for Nineteen Eighty-Four’s fearless Julia, vetoed Bowie’s idea, much to his displeasure; he reworked the collection of songs and in 1974 released the album Diamond Dogs. As well as the hit single ‘Rebel Rebel’, it featured songs such as ‘1984’ ‘Big Brother’. (Sonia Brownell and Orwell married three months before his death; he because he thought her youth and vigour would reanimate him, she because he was George Orwell. Like Yoko Ono, she was much demonised for her role)
Prior to the arrival of the year 1984, pop culture was littered with nervy references about its totalitarian significance: besides Bowie, John Lennon and Stevie Wonder both sang about it. Yet it wasn’t until the passing of the analogue era that Orwell’s vision became more realised, although what he had not envisioned was our own eager collusion in handing over our personal data to a Big Brother corporatocracy, and our lurch towards so-called populism.
Fast-forward to 2019, as an online cartoon shows a librarian heaving a pile of books — The Handmaid’s Tale, The Hunger Games, The Road, A Clockwork Orange, Fahrenheit 451, and Nineteen Eighty-Four — from the fiction shelves to non-fiction. It would be funny were it not quite so terrifying, yet none of the titles remain as prescient as Nineteen Eighty-Four, its phrases and ideas so deeply embedded in our language and culture that we almost forget where they come from. Seventy years on, the novel reflects our political landscape more starkly than ever, as it morphs from literary dystopia to current affairs. George Orwell would be spinning.
Orwell’s final novel, which flipped 1948, its year of completion, to the future date of 1984, seems now, in 2019, not just still relevant, but eerily prophetic. Mass surveillance, corrupt power, cronyism, distortion of truth, collusion with falsehood, state brutality, media brainwashing; Orwell was writing during the rule of Stalin, yet the term Orwellian is even more creepily applicable in the digital age, where the scope for information distortion seems limitless, thanks to humanity’s greatest invention since the printing press.
The internet, initially utopian, has in recent times become Orwellian — creating hypnotic control, harvesting personal data, monitoring and recording our every move, powering the mass transmission of lies. The only difference is that instead of resisting, we continue to wholly embrace it: like Winston Smith after being reprogrammed, we all love Big Brother. Except in 2019 we call it Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Amazon, Google. We walk with our heads bowed.
Ironically, the novel itself has not been immune from online distortion. In June 2017, the line “The people will not revolt. They will not look up from their screens long enough to notice what’s happening” began zinging around the internet, attributed to Orwell — suggesting he had basically predicted the mass use of smart phones back in 1948 — yet the line was not taken from the novel, but from a 2014 theatre adaptation.
Fake news, used so effectively by US president Donald Trump to rile his base, is conceptually Orwellian, although you’d be forgiven for wondering if the Tweeter-in-Chief has ever read a book, never mind 1984. Unlike Putin, Trump has neither the intellect nor the vision for true totalitarianism — just the cruelty.
With such misuse of power so prevalent around the globe, the ideas Orwell presented 70 years ago — Big Brother, telescreens, 2+2=5, doublethink, thought police, newspeak, unperson, Room 101, the Two Minutes Hate — remain live and relevant. Let’s have a look.
1948’s 1984 in 2019
Doublethink is the holding of two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them. Doublethink went public in January 2017, when, confronted with inarguable photographic evidence contradicting Trump’s statement that his inauguration crowds were the biggest ever, his spokesperson Kelly Ann Conway called her boss’s blatant lies “alternative facts.” Which rather blew people’s minds.
Newspeak, the official language of 1984, does not allow for negatives — for example, ‘bad’ is ‘ungood’ — and includes the Party slogan “War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength”. Equivalent terms today, in which meaning is filleted from language to render ideas anodyne and palatable, might include war on terror, collateral damage, ethnic cleansing, enhanced interrogation, special rendition, pro-life, and scariest of all, climate change rather than the more accurate climate catastrophe.
As Orwell wrote: “Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought?”
Orthodoxy, wrote Orwell, “means not thinking — not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.” Orwellian orthodoxy is terrorist attacks on civilians in the name of various religions; it is 25 white men legislating against women’s human rights in Alabama, also in the name of religion. It is legislation which punishes abortion doctors more than rapists.
“The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power.” Hello, Boris Johnson.
“Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.” Traditionally, this fell to media barons like Rupert Murdoch and their influence over political outcome via tabloid papers; in the digital age, the job is being done by fake news.
Next-level fake news threatens via audio photoshop, where moving imagery of faces can be manipulated to literally put (fake) words in the mouths of just about anyone. A clip currently doing the rounds online shows world leaders — Trump, May, Putin, Kim Jong Un, Deng Xiaoping — singing John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’. It’s surreal, and utterly terrifying when you consider just how nefariously this tech could — will — be used.
Big Brother, described Orwell, was “always eyes watching you and the voice enveloping you. Asleep or awake, indoors or out of doors, in the bath or bed — no escape. Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimetres in your skull.”
In 2000, we turned 24/7 surveillance into a game show and watched it avidly for 18 seasons.
“You had to live — did live, from habit that became instinct — in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every moment scrutinised.”
What Orwell never imagined is now complicit we would become in our own mass surveillance, making public our every move, purchase, interaction, emotion.
Two Minutes Hate was the daily ritual of directing hatred towards manufactured enemies of The Party, inspired by tactics used during the stalemate of World War One to keep soldiers pepped up with loathing when they really just wanted to go home.
Manufacturing enemies to distract the masses has long been a successful tactic used by power, resulting in demonisation of the poor, the displaced, the minority. Populist figures excel at this; think Trump on Twitter, or Nigel Farage.
“Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows,” wrote Orwell. A spark of hope in the bleakness of our post 1984 world might be found in the manifesto of the fledging Extinction Rebellion, whose simple demand to power is to “tell the truth”.