June 28, 2005
Thinking of the future I
I have been rereading "1984," George Orwell's gloomy novel about an ultratotalitarian society, in which the government's motto is "War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignroance is Strength." The novel gave us the concept of Big Brother (the state ruthlessly invading privacy in order to control individuals), the term doublethink (holding two contradictory beliefs and accepting both) and the punishable offence thoughtcrime (any thought not approved by the government).
Many of the ideas and concepts Orwell wrote about have become grist for the mill of challenging whatever one does not like. Big Brother, for example, has been used to describe government-approved laws, rules and regulation, or the tactics of a police force, or an employer who monitors people's use of the Internet or the company's phones for personal use. Religion has long had a tradition of rooting out thoughtcrime — perhaps thoughtsin would be a more apt word to use, but the concept is fairly similar, the belief that people need to do penance for thinking certain thoughts.
What strikes me most in this rereading is not so much the prophecy many people saw when the book was published in 1948 (just after the reign of fascism had been broken and just as the Cold War between Western democracy and Soviet totalitarianism was beginning), but the idea that history is a fluid thing, existing only today.
Winston Smith, the main character, works in the Ministry of Truth, the government agency responsible for all media. I have always believe that the news stories produced by the media are the first recordings of history, sketchy in initial details and subject to misinterpretation because not all the facts of an event have yet been revealed. Opinion, in this view, would be the first attempt to put history into a perspective.
In "1984," the concept of history is simple: "Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past," Orwell wrote. Big Brother controls the present in "1984," and it is through people like Winston that it controls the past.
"The messages he had received," Orwell described, "referred to articles or news-items which for one reason or another it was thought necessary to alter, or, as the official phrase had it, to rectify."
That is, if the party leader had made a statement a few months or few years previously that doesn't fit the facts of today, then the leader's words of the past are fixed to match the events of today.
As Orwell put it: "As soon as all the corrections which happened to be necessary in any particular number of the Times had been assembled and collated, that number would be reprinted, the original copy destroyed, and the corrected copy placed on the files in its stead."
History, thus, is rendered obsolete each day.
Could such a thing happen today?
The means and technology to do it do exist, and I'm certain the will exists in some circles to do just that. Will it?
Wednesday: Rethinking the future II