Written by Dalma Roman
From the pages of 1984 to the screens in our pockets today, the warnings of George Orwell’s idea that Big Brother is constantly watching us have never been more apparent. While it has been nearly 70 years since Orwell penned his dystopian novel of the chilling depiction of a totalitarian society, in many ways, his world has become our present.
Orwell’s novel transports the reader to an oppressive world where the government, led by the all-seeing Big Brother, exerts complete control over the lives of all citizens. The novel follows the story of the protagonist, Winston Smith, a low-ranking member of the ruling party who questions the system which society blindly obeys. Through Winston’s struggles, the reader realizes how the devastating effects of propaganda, totalitarianism, and manipulation of the truth can strip away one’s freedoms and dignity.
Therefore, by discussing 1984’s themes of surveillance, propaganda, and language control in relation to modern society, a fundamental question arises: is Big Brother watching us right now? The answer may be closer than you think.
II. Surveillance and Privacy Invasions
In 1984, surveillance systems were portrayed as all-encompassing and widespread. Through the use of advanced technologies like telescreens, which are two-way television screens installed in every room, and hidden microphones, the elite of the ruling party have complete control over the citizens in Orwell’s fantasy world of Oceania. Oddly enough, as we enter an age of technology and information overload, the parallels between Oceania and society today become more prominent than ever. For example, with the widespread use of cameras, microphones, and other forms of surveillance, technology is becoming increasingly common in public spaces and even homes. No matter where one looks, there is sure to be a piece of technology that watches your every move.
Furthermore, the rise of smart home devices and personal assistants, like Amazon’s Alexa, Google Home, and even Siri, have become the modern version of a telescreen. With these devices being willingly brought into one’s home, privacy which was once considered a fundamental right has become a luxury that is increasingly difficult to attain. Nonetheless, while there are significant differences between the surveillance systems in 1984 and those in today’s society, the similarities are cause for concern. So, the next time your Siri goes off for no apparent reason, it might be a slight reminder that Orwell’s ideas in 1984 are nearer than ever before.
III. Propaganda and Misinformation
Propaganda and misinformation are key themes in 1984, and their relevance to modern society is uncanny. In the novel, the government of Oceania uses propaganda and misinformation as tools of manipulation to make its inhabitants accept its version of reality and history. For example, Oceania has a government agency known as the Ministry of Truth, and its sole responsibility is to rewrite historical records and news articles to fit the government’s agenda. This, in turn, creates a distorted perception of reality and ultimately reinforces the government’s power as citizens are left with no alternative sources of information.
Similarly, in modern society, there have been instances where propaganda and misinformation were used by governments to control public opinion and maintain power. For instance, the spread of fake news and conspiracy theories on social media has caused widespread confusion, mistrust, and even hysteria. A recent example of a conspiracy theory is the COVID-19 vaccine and rumors that it contains a microchip to track individuals. Even though this claim was false, it created widespread perplexity and mistrust in society and ultimately led to vaccine hesitancy, despite overwhelming evidence showing its safety and efficacy. Therefore, it can be argued that in a world where truth is often subjective and reality is constantly being questioned and rewritten, the themes of 1984 begin to become an all too real reality.
IV. Control of Language and Censorship
Language and censorship are power, and 1984 serves as the embodiment of the destructive consequences that can arise when language or censorship is abused and manipulated. Orwell’s depiction of this theme is illustrated through the concept of Newspeak. Newspeak is a language used in Oceania that is deliberately designed to limit the range of thought and expression among citizens. This process is done by eliminating words that could be used to express dissent or independent thought. In addition to this, the government engages in widespread censorship by banning books, films, and forms of media that contain ideas or information that are deemed dangerous to the regime controlled by Big Brother.
Hauntingly, these ideas of language control and censorship have become paramount in today’s society, most prominently done through the use of social media. Digital platforms have allowed those in power to have a significant influence over the language used to describe events, which shapes the public narrative of what should be seen and should be hidden. For example, terms such as “fake news” have been commonly used as a way to hinder public thought. Similarly, censorship is also reflected through the use of modern-day social media. Specifically, this is seen through the rise of cancel culture, where individuals are punished or ostracised for expressing unpopular opinions. Cancel culture involves efforts to silence or suppress certain opinions or expressions of certain individuals or groups deemed to be problematic, showing how the definition is the manifestation of censorship. Therefore, the echoes of the dark warning embedded in 1984’s description of censorship and language control call still be heard today, acting as a source of mystery that leaves us questioning whether we are truly free to speak or if we are being silently manipulated by unseen forces.
Ultimately, George Orwell’s 1984 serves as a historical rendition of what might happen in the future if the fundamental elements that makeup democracy are undermined. Unnervingly, the themes of surveillance, propaganda, and language control are only a few examples of how 1984’s ideas became a modern reality. Therefore, while George Orwell famously said, “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU” in a novel he considered fiction, as I sit down to write this article, I can’t help but feel as though Big Brother is watching me too.
Featured image credit: What Are You Looking At? (2004), Banksy. Marble Arch, London. Accessed via Unsplash: https://unsplash.com/photos/LkD_IH8_K8k.