70 years ago, the British writer George Orwell captured the essence of technology in its ability to shape our destinies in his seminal work, 1984. The tragedy of our times is that we have failed to heed his warning.
No matter how many times I read 1984, the feeling of total helplessness and despair that weaves itself throughout Orwell’s masterpiece never fails to take me by surprise. Although usually referred to as a ‘dystopian futuristic novel’, it is actually a horror story on a scale far greater than anything that has emerged from the minds of prolific writers like Stephen King or Dean Koontz. The reason is simple. The nightmare world that the protagonist Winston Smith inhabits, a place called Oceania, is all too easily imaginable. Man, as opposed to some imaginary clown or demon, is the evil monster.
In the very first pages of the book, Orwell demonstrates an uncanny ability to foresee future trends in technology. Describing the protagonist Winston Smith’s frugal London flat, he mentions an instrument called a ‘telescreen’, which sounds strikingly similar to the handheld ‘smartphone’ that is enthusiastically used by billions of people around the world today.
— Dennis Junk (@DJunkInTheTrunk) June 26, 2019
Orwell describes the ubiquitous device as an “oblong metal plaque like a dulled mirror” affixed to the wall that “could be dimmed, but there was no way of shutting it off completely.” Sound familiar? It is through this gadget that the rulers of Oceania are able to monitor the actions of its citizens every minute of every day. At the same time, the denizens of 1984 were never allowed to forget they were living in a totalitarian surveillance state, under the control of the much-feared Thought Police. Massive posters with the slogan ‘Big Brother is Watching You’ were as prevalent as our modern-day advertising billboards. Today, however, such polite warnings about surveillance would seem redundant, as reports of unauthorized spying still gets the occasional lazy nod in the media now and then.