Are we learning Newspeak as we speak?
George Orwell’s masterpiece novel is 70 years old this week.
I first read it thirty years ago, when 1984 was already a year in the past. But it was clearly then a warning to be vigilant, to watch Big Brother and ensure He/It/They didn’t take over our little part of Oceania (though Ireland doesn’t even get a mention as Airstrip Two, or something).
Yet, despite the fall of the Iron Curtain five years after its setting it’s become more relevant as time goes on.
Orwell had lived the experience of seeing the ideals of the common man being twisted, controlled and eventually stymied by a stronger power, which pretends to be helping, often with propaganda as one of the main weapons. Consider the attempts to halt climate change, pollution, corruption, environmental destruction over the years since the 1960s. They were as effective as the efforts to overthrow communism in the USSR and Eastern Europe. Hopefully the current demonstrations from #fridays4future and #extinctionrebellion will have better success, because we can’t afford wait till capitalism collapses under its own weight – predicted to happen soon enough but not before it causes ecological collapse.
The emission of a reality TV series called Big Brother brought the book to the consciousness of a mass of viewers who’d never read as voraciously as some of us do.
And yet, how frivolous a use of the term. How cosy we were in thinking we had control of how we were being observed, could opt in to 24/7 scrutiny for a few weeks in the hope of winning cash prizes and/or fame.
I’ve not read the book again since I was fifteen (I very rarely read a book twice), but recently I’ve been teaching students about dystopias and I’ve watched clips of the John Hurt movie version, which bring it back into focus like a slap to the face.
When I tell the kids where the reality TV show name comes from they’re surprised, but what’s more astounding is the ease with which we have allowed Big Brother (Big Business, Big Data) to take over our lives, to actually scrutinise us more than the TV cameras do on that show.
Though we don’t pause to consider it much, now They can look into our thoughts, from our daily choices and actions in a real setting, not on some TV set.
And I’ve started wondering if we aren’t already starting to use NewSpeak.
At first, we did it to ourselves, since people stopped writing letters to one another, as well as a decline in reading.
Then, when phone texting became a thing, we started shortening words and changing spelling to fit more words in, and speed up messaging. We also started choosing simpler words rather than more complex ones.
Now, though, Big Brother is doing it.
Just like Big Data has figured out that predicting our choices is easier when They are in fact guiding us – as seen in the Pokemon go game – so, I think, predictive text on our phones (and the suggested replies suddenly appearing on our emails nowadays) is designed to do the same to our thoughts: to direct them, shorten them, prune the word selection until we are saying the same thing again and again, using only the few words They tell us to. Eventually, the sentences They construct for us will be considered good enough. We will write what They suggest we write. And, as Orwell so vividly explained, we will think how They want us to think. Simply.
Is there any remedy against this trimming of our mental faculties?
Read the book.
Read the book again (I plan to this summer) and again, and read more books in general.