Literature is not just a popular leisure activity. It can also convey important historical evidence and remarkable considerations about the socio-cultural situation of a country. This is exactly the case for “1984”, George Orwell’s political novel written in 1948 and published in the following year.
Through his writing, the author was aiming to warn readers to the dangers inevitably carried by a totalitarian government. After having witnessed the different outcomes of Russia’s and Spain’s political experience, Orwell decided to represent in his dystopian novel all the cruelties and oppressions perpetrated by totalitarian countries. By depicting a perfect totalitarian society, the author puts into light the role of technology, which, despite some positive outgrowths, tends to enable oppressive governments to control their citizens.
Winston Smith and the other inhabitants of Oceania – the fictional superstate where the story is played – endure an endless austerity ensured by several political strategies of the Party, such as a watchful technology and the indirect manipulation of inner thoughts. If the book was defined as an “excess of satire” by the New York Times in 1949, nowadays this statement seem to be inappropriate. Apart from being numerous, the reasons behind the assumption that Orwell predicted today’s society derive from the interpretations of the metaphors told in the book, thanks to whom it is possible to recognise uncanny similarities to contemporary society.
The main goal of the Newspeak – the language forged by the Party – is to replace English and prevent people from conceptualizing anything that may question the Party’s power and authority. As a result, the manipulation of language is here directly associated to the control of minds and to the destruction of independent thoughts. In fact, the Newspeak is exempt from negative words in order to erase any rebellious way of thinking, or, as Orwell described it, the “crimethink”. Therefore, “bad” has become “ungood” in the novel, a word that carries negative connotations just through its prefix.
On the basis of literary analysis, the Newspeak has reminded critics of the techniques developed by the media in order to control people’s flow of thoughts. Just think of TV stations, which carefully choose their words to describe groups of people and create praise or disdain according to their political goals. For instance, they tend to call attention to religion if the criminal belongs to the Islamic community. In this way, they help the phenomenon of islamophobia increase and become a real menace. Another example can be found when people tackle the topic of abortion: instead of “fetus”, the emotionally-loaded word “baby” is often used in order to incite anti-abortion causes.
In addition, the “politically correct” attitudes confirm the idea that the manipulation of people’s thoughts and beliefs is not just a mere assumption. On the other hand, it is necessary to underline that people themselves are responsible for this process. The more technology grows, the more daily language experiences a serious relinquishment of its efficacy. Abbreviations and incorrect sentences occur on a regular basis and, because of them, people are unconsciously forgetting the various nuances a linguistic code is composed of.
As it has been already stated, technology has now become watchful and omnipresent. Through satellites and the internet, people can be easily tracked. If Orwell talked about giant telescreens which were put in every room to spread political propaganda as well as to monitor people’s behaviour, contemporary society controls people through computers and mobile phones. Former Miss Teen USA Cassidy Wolf stands for a good example of it: after her webcam was hacked, she had been watched for almost a year.
Nevertheless, the intrusive presence of technology is most of the times a silent one. In fact, the idea that digital messages are inviolably private and can’t be stored is, without any doubt, a naive assumption. Moreover, memories and interpretations about past or present facts, as it happened in “1984”, are often manipulated, or even distorted, by the irruption of the mediatic power, which wants to show a reality that, nonetheless, is rarely akin to the truth of the matter.
The actual impact of social media on daily life
It is easy to recognise several associations between the Big Brother and social media. Similarly to the dystopian party, social media spy on people in order to predict their preferences. What strikes most of this fact is that people are not often aware of it.
Social media are also very important because of political reasons. In creating enemies and instigating hateful reactions, they make people channel their anger towards someone who is not the right menace to fight and defeat. The Big brother, on the other hand, opted for the “Two Minutes Hate”, a daily activity consisting in watching images related to the Party’s enemies. In the same way, social media have the power of arising cult of personalities. The political campaign of Donald Trump, for instance, has been promoted by mass media, propaganda, and patriotic strategies, as well as the election of Mussolini, Hitler, Berlusconi, and Putin – just to name a few.
Another way to keep masses quiet is the spread of material for adults. In the novel, the Ministry of Truth was financing and producing this kind of material in order to make people become a “couch potato”, sapping all their forces. In the same way, contemporary society conceives this material as an opium for citizens, offering them a distorted idea of reality.
Therefore, the sentence “Freedom is slavery” can be deemed as true according to these various points of view. Nowadays, people are becoming slaves due to the impact of social media on their life, which incite them to get more “likes”, or more “followers”. As a result, face-to-face interactions are about to become of secondary importance, silently supplanted by the virtual world shaped by social media.
Regardless of their political inclination, governments have the power to impose laws or regulations, which, even though they do affect people’s freedom, pretend to protect human rights by means of politicians’ communicative strategies. After 9/11, American surveillance practices have drastically increased and, due to people’s fear, some draconian laws ended up being accepted. For example, the Patriot Act, introduced in 2001 by the Bush administration, granted the Justice Department new powers, endangering free speech, civil liberties, and privacy.
In the book, this phenomenon is explained by the concept of “doublethink”, which, as the novel describes, is “the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them”. Therefore, the lack of information and a sense of general confusion lead people to change their opinions and accept prefabricated notions and unclear reasoning.
Orwell’s “proles” are nothing but workers who are overly happy because they are naive and satisfied with what they have. These uninformed people, who are too exhausted to consult newspapers instead of social networks, are the main engine of governments. Likewise, people who oppose any socio-political system are just activists who raise their voice in order to defend civil rights. Even if there’s nothing mischievous in these associations, Orwell’s Party, as well as contemporary society, tend to describe them as a menace that has to be silenced.
The assumption that Orwell’s dystopian world is more and more akin to the contemporary society needs to be explained by means of statistics too. At the wake of 2017, when Donald Trump’s presidency had only just begun, the sales of “1984” considerably increased in India, Canada, Britain, China, and in the US. According to publicity director at Penguin USA Craig Burke, the book had a 9.500% increase in sales in January 2017, becoming one of the bestselling books on Amazon. These data are certainly meaningful indicators of the overwhelming sense of bewilderment experienced by people. Actually, as Orwell said in his novel, “The best books are those that tell you what you know already.”