1984 in 2020


The first time I encountered George Orwell’s 1984 was in an essay collection by Isaac Asimov I read when I was 11. It was the first thing I’d read by Asimov, it was the first essay in the book, and it was devoted to criticizing 1984 as a bad example of science fiction. It’s laughable to recall that essay now. Asimov was fixated on the Orwell’s failure to imagine technological advancement and how well it measured as a predictive text; he pushed an idea that science fiction attempts to accurately extrapolate the future. If you measure Asimov’s own work against that criteria, then he failed to write good science fiction too. And from the viewpoint of 2020, the situations have reversed: Asimov wrote the essay in actual-year 1984, and many of the social changes 1984 warns us about sank into daily life much later. 1984 became much more of a predictive text than Asimov’s in the 21st century, but we’ve ceased to measure it by the criteria.

Not to criticize Asimov too harshly on this point – there are other things that he deserves much more criticism for. In 1984, there was a vogue to write those kinds of comparisons when the year and title of the novel are largely arbitrary. The worst I can say is that Asimov’s essay meant I didn’t pick up 1984 on my own through high school. It was assigned reading in other English classes but not in mine, and I didn’t actively seek it out.

Time passed. It’s 2020. I have finally read 1984 for the first time.

It was a better time to read the book. The high school discussions of 1984 aren’t very stimulating—another reason I avoid it back then, because discussion of it in the hallways wasn’t terribly deep. As filtered through popular culture, 1984 was interpreted as a warning against the evils of communism. Through the 2000s, a large group of people applied various terms from 1984 to demonize left-wing thought. Then in the 2010s, the same people who used these rhetoric devices came back and started implementing its ideas wholesale on their own behalf.

George Orwell did not intend to write a predictive text. 1984 is actually a stellar example of what science fiction actually does: dislocating current trends and ideas out of their context and displaying them in a way that allows you to explore and lay them bare from a different angle, freed from the baggage of the present real world. Science fiction takes the façade of being about the future to comment on the time in which it is written.

Often, we class it as technological (“hard”) or social/anthropological (“soft”) science fiction, but you can expand these categories. 1984 is political science fiction. Orwell saw movements in political thought and speech in 1948-1949 and sought to analyze them in an imaginative setting, explicitly as an argument why we should avoid them. Thus, the stark, totalitarian dystopian nightmare.

Yet the political currents Orwell amplifies are mechanism over ideology. This is the major way I feel the message of 1984 was and is misunderstood. There is a passage where Winston Smith reads a children’s history textbook about the capitalists overthrown in the revolutions of the 1960s, and the description applies equally well to the “Ingsoc” dictatorship of 1984. Late in the novel, Orwell is more explicit: the Ingsoc government has abandoned all principles of socialism while acting in its name, because the only principle on which it operates is to hold and maintain power. Yes, this is a criticism of socialist dictatorship as found in the Soviet Union and China. To Orwell, these could not be stepping stones to a worker’s utopia because the imposed hierarchy becomes self-sustaining and not a benevolent shepherd. But the central thesis is that totalitarian governments are themselves their own political axis and cannot be used as a tool used to advance other political ideologies. In the end, the entirety of the state’s resources are devoted to perpetually upholding the status quo. The three super-states of 1984 are indistinguishable from each other because their embrace of totalitarianism became the end goal.

That all being said, the technological side of 1984 did happen if you take a broader view of what technology means. These were not so obvious in real-year-1984 when reviewers were looking back at the novel. The parallels are a lot easier to draw now. Some examples:

  • Orwell based the ever present-telescreens on televisions; it took a lot longer before the function they serve in the novel actually came to pass with the internet and our now constant, intrusive surveillance on computer networks. Social media, search engine and software conglomerates now harvest our data and distort political processes.
  • Reality control, as presented by the Ministry of Truth, now comes under the common use of the term gaslighting for political messaging. Winston Smith’s job in 1984 is to forge documentary evidence and destroy contradictory evidence against the ruling party’s present doctrine. The parlance of 1984 surged in popularity in the 2010s as the internet became a way to make the truth malleable once individuals could immerse themselves in carefully controlled sources of information. You can now easily fabricate stories and have them proliferate and displace legitimate records at an alarming rate if you target the right people and shell out enough money for your Facebook ad. It turned out you can, on a massive scale, rewrite the past at any moment to fit your desired ends. The “evidence” now exists to prove you are not contradicting your previous position, and people will believe you if the weight of social pressure and information flow seems to confirm it.
  • The new approach to war as a way to artificially produce scarcity in 1984 is, I think, much closer to the way superpowers approach conflict in 2020 than in actual-year-1984. The same passage describing the way these wars work resonates more with a 2020 reader than they did in 1949.

I could go on, but simply drawing analogies is engaging with the text on a shallow level and goes against my opening argument. 1984’s staying power isn’t because of its predictive qualities. It lies in the way its written, the very shape of the text claustrophobic and honed in on the inconsequential life of Winston Smith and his inevitable, inconsequential death. Every aspect of the prose is deliberately restrictive as a reflection of its totalitarian setting. There is a clarity of purpose to the writing that still feels rare.

1984 sticks around because it uses the tools of science fiction to effectively address a currents in the modern era that haven’t gone away. Like my review of War and Peace, there’s not much I can add to the conversation about 1984 besides my personal reaction to it, in 2020, when it feels like a heavy weight still bearing down on the shape of our present.

Whisper into the darkness

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