In the aftermath of the bombshell stories about government surveillance of phone and internet communications, sales of the dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four are through the roof.
According to Amazon, sales of the various editions of George Orwell's classic have risen anywhere from 100%-3,000%. It isn't hard to see why disclosures over widespread surveillance wouldn't bring to mind the nightmare world of Big Brother. But aside from Nineteen Eighty-Four's world of pervasive surveillance, there are other similarities to our world. Without spoiling anything, here are four other parallels.
In the novel, there are three superstates left in the world: Eurasia, Eastasia, and Oceania, where the main story takes place. On any given day, one of these three nations is at war with the other two, with alliances shifting back and forth based upon convenience. So while Oceania may have been allied with Eastasia at one point, at another point they may be enemies. But at no point is Oceania ever at peace. Likewise, it's hard to remember the last time the United States was at peace. The Iraq War only ended two years ago. The War in Afghanistan, now America's longest war, is approaching its twelfth year. And it looks as if the moment that war ends, the U.S. will be at war again, this time with Iran.
People typically use language as a means to express their thoughts and ideas. On the other hand, governments and corporations often use language to conceal their intentions. The debasement of language is one of the most famous themes depicted in Nineteen Eighty-Four. This is popularly known as Doublespeak. Doublespeak is the distortion of language through the use of euphemism, semantics, and equivocation. Examples of real-life Doublespeak includes internet companies weaseling around their participation in the PRISM program. Another example is Obama's repeated assertion that he "welcomes the debate" on civil liberties, despite the fact that his administration is legendary for punishing the people, whistleblowers, who start it.
Another prominent aspect of Nineteen Eighty-Four's story is how often political dissidents seem to disappear. One of the Doublespeak words often used in the novel is the term "unperson." An unperson is someone who has been "vaporized" by the state. The word "vaporized" was inspired by the Stalinist Soviet Union's preferred euphemism: "liquidation". Without warning, political opponents would be picked up by state security services and wisked off, never to be seen again. The US government has its own euphemism: "extraordinary rendition." Since 9/11, the CIA has made a practice of kidnapping those it suspects of terrorist activity and sending them to be tortured in countries such as Egypt, Somalia, Afghanistan, and others.
As stated in the introduction, technological surveillance figures prominently in the novel; as people go about their daily business they are monitored by telescreens and microphones. The message is that while most people consider technological progress a good thing, it can be a potent tool for government repression. And yet the inhabitants of Oceania don't mind the intrusive surveillance because they are fed a constant diet of propaganda. This propaganda, meant to instill fear and obedience, generally takes the form of posters, slogans, and videos.
In the same way, Americans also accept technological surveillance. A joint Washington Post-Pew Research Poll came out that showed that a majority of Americans favor the government's monitoring of phone communication. This acquiescence is driven by fear of terrorist attack; 56% say they consider phone monitoring to be acceptable if it prevents a terrorist attack. And only a slight majority, 52%, oppose doing the same thing for internet communications.
Of course, despite this view of life imitating art, we are a long way off from Nineteen Eighty-Four. But the warnings Orwell sounded are strikingly relevant today and should inform the debate that Obama says he welcomes and is sure to come.
You can buy 1984 from Amazon here.