Friday, June 28, 2013

Orwell's searing indictment on how power corrupts

Nineteen Eighty-Four, By George Orwell
Originally published by Harcourt Inc. (1949)

George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four is a disturbing novel on many levels and has rightly earned its place among the literary masterpieces of the 20th century.

It's disturbing because of the nightmare world that Orwell creates, full of random violence, soul-sapping monotony and almost devoid of human qualities such as love, ambition, artistic expression, joy and hope. Orwell's language is shocking and provocative, and it's meant to get under the skin of his readers, and it succeeds.

Nineteen Eighty-Four tells the story of Winston Smith, a mid-level bureaucrat who works for the Ministry of Truth. Smith's possesses a rational mind and is all too aware of the dreary, suffocating environment that he inhabits day after day: everywhere he goes and everything he does is closely monitored by Big Brother, or the State. He is encouraged to obey the party line and work without complaint alongside all of the other cogs in the machinery.

Except that Smith has grown tired and restless with this hum drum existence. In an effort to exercise a measure of free will, he thumbs his nose at Big Brother, first by having an affair with a younger woman (Julie), and then by befriending a man (O'Brien) whom Smith believes is part of a movement intent on subverting Big Brother. Both of these decisions will come back to haunt poor Smith, but you'll have to read the novel to find out how.

What Big Brother wants from its citizens is not their physical labours and brainpower (although those are important). Rather, it wants their unconditional love. Whoever dares to challenge Big Brother's power and authority is swiftly and severely dealt with. Anyone who demonstrates an ounce of humanity, decency or free will is either tortured and or killed. There are no courts, no appeals. Big Brother doesn't just kill dissenters; it 'vaporizes' them, meaning that all evidence of a person's existence is eliminated forever.

The reason Winston Smith is such a compelling character is that he one man fighting against the system, an average citizen caught up in a world that he barely understands, struggling to keep himself sane. Smith's story has parallels to Franz Kafka's "The Trial," a story of a man who is arrested by an authority that is both amorphous and mysterious and spends the entire novel trying to figure out why. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Smith is immersed in a similar world of shadowy figures, abhorrent laws and cruel punishments.

Another disturbing aspect of Nineteen Eighty-Four is how much of Orwell's vision of the future rings true today. This question has become more urgent in light of recent revelations that the American and British governments have been engaged in top-secret mass surveillance programs. Many would argue that some of Orwell's predictions have already come true with issues of privacy and surveillance, and when you read passages like this one, which appears early on in Nineteen Eighty-Four, it would be hard to disagree:
"How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. 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 movement scrutinized."
But what Orwell didn't get right was the power of the individual in the new world order. Thanks to relatively cheap and accessible technologies, the individual has been empowered as never before. New communications tools and platforms have allowed individuals to express a diverse range of thoughts and opinions, as well as start companies, form communities, raise money, support causes and even topple governments.

The subtle irony of the technological revolution, however, is that computers may have freed us from the chains of big government and opened the doors for unprecedented social change, but in the process we have become slaves to that very technology, unable to tear ourselves away from our smarthones, laptops, tablets and PCs. 

Nineteen Eighty-four may be a disturbing novel on many levels, and it raises many questions about authority and the individual's place within society, but it deserves to be read. 


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