by Matthew Feeney
the director of the
Project on Emerging Technologies.
In October 1947 Eric Blair, known today by his pen name
George Orwell, wrote a letter to the co-owner of the
Secker & Warburg publishing house.
In that letter, Orwell
noted that he was in the "last lap" of the rough draft of a novel,
describing it as "a most dreadful mess." Orwell had sequestered
himself on the Scottish island of Jura in order to finish the novel.
He completed it the
following year, having transformed his "most dreadful mess" into "1984,"
one of the 20th century's most important novels.
Published in 1949, the
novel turns 70 this year. The anniversary provides an opportunity to
reflect on the novel's significance and its most valuable but
sometimes overlooked lesson.
The main lesson of "1984" is not "Persistent Surveillance is Bad" or
"Authoritarian Governments Are Dangerous." These are true
statements, but not the most important message.
"1984" is at its core a
novel about language:
how it can be used by
governments to subjugate and obfuscate and by citizens to resist
Orwell was a master of
the English language and his legacy lives on through some of the
words he created. Even those who haven't read "1984" know some of
"1984" provides English
speakers with a vocabulary to discuss surveillance, police states
and authoritarianism, which includes terms such as,
...to name a few.
The authoritarian government of Orwell's Oceania doesn't
merely severely punish dissent - it seeks to make even thinking
about dissent impossible.
When Inner Party member
O'Brien tortures "1984's" protagonist, Winston Smith,
he holds up his hand with four fingers extended and asks Smith
how many fingers he sees.
"Four! Four! What
else can I say? Four!",
inflicts excruciating pain.
finally claims to see five fingers, O'Brien emphasizes that
saying "Five" is not enough,
"No, Winston, that is
no use. You are lying. You still think there are four."
Orwell's own name
inspired an adjective, "Orwellian," which is widely used in modern
political rhetoric, albeit often inappropriately.
It's usually our enemies
who are acting Orwellian, and it's a testament to Orwell's talents
that everyone seems to think "1984"
is about their political opponents.
left sees plenty of Orwellian tendencies in the White House
and the criminal justice system.
right bemoans "Thought Police" on college campuses and
social media companies turning users into "Unpersons."
But politicians can lie without being Orwellian, and a
private company closing a social media account is nothing
like a state murdering someone and eliminating them from
perceived academic conformity might be potentially stifling,
but it's hardly comparable to a conformity enforced by a
police state that eliminates entire words from society.
Yet when U.S. government officials use terms such as,
understand that what they're describing is actually,
They prefer it if
others, especially the press, used and believed in Orwellian
language that dehumanizes enemies of the government and
makes their horrific violence sound tolerable or even
We see far more nefarious and barbaric distortions of
reports by activists and researchers, the Chinese state has
put about 1 million people including many Uyghurs - a
majority-Muslim ethnic group - in "re-education" camps.
that the camps are hardly schools. They're brutal
indoctrination sites, with inmates forced to recite
Communist Party propaganda and renounce Islam.
North Korea, the
country that comes closest to embodying "1984," has hampered
its citizens' abilities to think for themselves with a
disheartening measure of success.
In her memoir,
North Korean defector Yeonmi Park describes discovering the
richness of South Korea's vocabulary, noting
have more words to describe the world, you increase your
ability to think complex thoughts."
surprising that when Park read Orwell's classic allegorical
Farm" she felt as if Orwell knew where she was
Orwell was not a prophet,
but he identified a necessary feature of any successful
To control you
effectively it can't merely threaten death, imprisonment or torture.
It's not enough for it to ban books and religions. As long as the
state doesn't dominate your consciousness, it's under constant risk
We shouldn't fear the
U.S. turning into Orwell's dystopian nightmare just yet, but at a
time when political dishonesty is rampant we should remember
1984's most important lesson:
The state can
'occupy' your mind...