In our Book of the Week column, every Monday one of us Robots is going to tell you about something you ought to be reading. You know, in book format– one that doesn’t necessarily contain pictures of spandex-clad superheroes. The sky’s the limit, and rather than retread earlier ground, like me talking about how much I absolutely loved Swankmotron’s Lost at the Con (I think we do that enough), I wanted to go to a book that I think is especially important given what is going on every day in the world around us. Normally we’ll try to keep this column focused on geek-type books, but most geeks I know like a good dystopian novel, and this just seems too important.
George Orwell’s 1984 seems even more prescient today than when it was first written during the height of the Cold War. I believe this to be because the human condition has stayed very much the same what it was 50 years ago. And just like how in Orwell’s Oceania one day the masses wake up and we’re no longer at war with Eastasia, but we’re at war with Eurasia, and have always been at war with Eurasia, so too have the landscapes so shifted. In the actual year 1984, Steve Jobs and Apple tried to “revolutionize” the computer world with the release of both the Apple II and their infamous Super Bowl ad where the woman smashes the Big Brother screen with the hammer– and the people are free!!! And here I sit in 2011 typing this on a MacBook acutely aware of the intense brand loyalty/cult of consumerism/evil empire Steve Jobs and Co created with their products. Apple used to be the revolutionaries– now they are the ones who set the tone for much of the rest of the tablet/smartphone/personal electronics market.
Orwell, a master of the English language and a master practitioner of it, would be amazed and horrified by our use of language and media. I think he’d be aghast at texting and netspeak, and yet maybe hopeful about the ability that communications tools like Twitter give normal folks to disseminate information without a filter. But then on the other hand the masses have become mesmerized by the masses of mass media available to them, and equally willing to believe them.
No doubt everyone has a friend or uncle or just Facebook friend who swears Obama is a secret Kenyan Muslim or that 9/11 was an “inside job.” And then Orwell would remind us, as he does in 1984, that the essence of perpetuating any fraud on the people is to get them to first believe something that is demonstrably untrue, such as 2+2 = 5. For everyone who believes ridiculous things like this, it’s because they’ve been told other untrue basic things that lead them to this fraud.
Or, in the dark recesses of the torture chamber Room 101 in the Ministry of Love as O’Brien tortures Winston Smith in order to get him to say that when he is holding up four fingers, Winston must say he is holding up five. Fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation may recognize this same device used by the Cardassians on Captain Picard in the season 6 episode Chain of Command, to which Picard always boldly announced “THERE ARE FOUR LIGHTS!”
Or he’d remind us how we’d brought some of this on ourselves in that we would so accept the twisting of language that war can be conducted in order to create peace, or oppression must happen to guarantee freedom, etc. Orwell created the word “doublespeak” specifically for 1984, and today you can barely use the word “doublespeak” without it being preceded by “Washington DC”– a sad commentary on what we expect from our elected officials, but ultimately true.
And I think Orwell would look around and be glad there is not a singular Big Brother who is oppressively watching us every moment of the day, but then chide us– because we’ve ALL become Big Brother through watching each other– Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, etc– throw it into a database and run a datamining program looking for “terrorists” and. . . . well we all end up having to take our shoes off at the airport in order to get on a plane.
1984 is going to be available at your public library (you remember those, right?) but these days you just may end up on a government watchlist by ordering an actual copy of it, either in actual book format or for your kindle. Go read it while you Occupy Wall St or wherever you’re occupying.
Next week we’ll try to do something a little more contemporary and a little more easily recongizable as geeky. But until then, please, think for yourselves and remember books are your friends.