1984 by George Orwell, with an Afterword by Erich Fromm. Specifically, it will discuss the similarities and differences between the "imagined" world of Oceania and the "real" world of America 2004, using this "Afterword" in relation to 21st century American Society. Orwell's book "1984" seems far away from the society of America in 2004, but if you take a closer look, it might not be so different after all. The Patriot Act allows our own "Big Brother" to spy on suspected terrorists, and the FBI keeps arresting the wrong people. Technology gives grocery stores and banks personal information every day, and we do not question it. Are we really so distant from 1984?
Clearly, there are many differences between our society and the society Orwell describes in "1984." The residents of Oceania have given up every freedom and live in constant fear of Big Brother, who is always and forever "watching you." While many 21st century Americans love to complain about growing government power and loss of personal freedoms, after reading this book, it is clear that the people really have very little to complain about. However, the road to utopia is not very different from the road to dystopia, and it is clear, especially with the fear over terrorism, that more controls could come. The controls could make the country seem more like a dysfunctional government, rather than a utopian government where people still have a say in what goes on, no matter how small it is.
Throughout the book, Orwell portrays "Airstrip One," or England, as a terrible place to live, where people are always afraid and someone is always watching over their shoulder. They have telescreens that watch them and can see them in every room, and they live in constant fear that the Thought Police will discover something awful and take them away to be "vaporized." As Orwell states early in the book, "Asleep or awake, working or eating, indoors or out of doors, in the bath or in bed - no escape. Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimeters inside your skull" (Orwell 26). This is a terrible way to live, and is the opposite of utopia, which we think is the perfect life. Dystopia is the opposite of the perfect society, and that is what the society of 1984 represents. It represents a hell on Earth, but one that the author believes could happen without much prodding. The imagined world of Oceania is a terrible world where torture is normal, and love is not allowed. We are nowhere near this type of control in 21st century America, and it seems Americans would not stand for this type of control; they would stand up and rebel, just as many of the Proles are rebelling in "1984." However, it is also clear that the Party has created a great and powerful political system that is capable of overthrowing rebellion and constantly controlling the people. Is America on the way to the same type of control?
In his Afterword, Erich Fromm calls Orwell's book a "powerful warning" (Fromm 267). Americans might smugly think that the controls of 1984 could never happen here, but it does not take much thought to realize they are already in place in many countries around the world. In China, journalists are banned, and people are controlled by the Communist Party to a great degree. In Cuba, Fidel Castro keeps his people in poverty and afraid of his Party and his spies. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein ruled by fear and violence. These things still happen in modern times, and there is no guarantee, as we become more and more afraid of the world around us, that our own country could not develop increasing controls to "save" us from violence, but that really take away our personal freedoms.
The watchful telescreen may not be in our homes yet, but many technologies already allow the government to eavesdrop on our conversations and pry into our personal lives. The article, "RFIDs" clearly indicates just how non-private our private lives are becoming. Radio Frequency Identification Devices (RFID) are "tiny micro-computer systems" that can tell a great deal of information about consumers. They cost as little as 25 cents to create, and are expected to take over the retail world in the next few years. These devices give off information when hit by bursts of electromagnetic radiation, and they can give off the information anywhere. Why are these bar-code devices so disturbing? Because "all kinds of information could theoretically be transmitted about an individual without their knowledge or consent, by tags in their shirts, shoes, gloves, belts, car seats, credit cards, and so on" (Dixon). What may be even more frightening than the potential of these devices to be used to gather sensitive and potentially damning information, is the fact that so many Americans simply take this kind of technology for granted, and do not take the time to think about the implications of the technology for the future. Today, nearly everyone has a grocery member card, that tells a computer exactly what you buy and how often, they also have automated teller cards that show how much you spend from your checking account, and where, and how much money you have available. There are many other records now that store information electronically that are open to government agencies if you are suspected of any kind of criminal activity. We take our freedom of privacy for granted, and our privacy is growing less private all the time. Is this just the beginning of an organized and repressed society like Orwell describes. According to Fromm and many others, it could be, and we should be much more watchful of the government and our privacy.
Our similarities with Orwell's concept of the future imply some very disturbing trends. Our society, as much as we might not like to admit it, is following the same path as Oceania did. Unfortunately, technology is not the only area where we are moving toward Orwell's vision of the future. Early in the novel, Orwell writes "Today there were fear, hatred, and pain, but no dignity of emotion, or deep or complex sorrows" (Orwell 29). Unfortunately, as our society grows, it seems these words describe our own society, too, in many areas. People today as a whole are more selfish, fearful, and hateful. Neighbors do not even speak to each other out of fear and selfishness, and people only care about themselves, and not anyone else. People work to buy things, and spend less time with their family and friends. People shut themselves off from emotions and sorrow, and go through life not caring about anyone or anything else. Our society seems to be degenerating, and as we give up our emotions and sorrows, we give up control over our lives, and allow the Big Brothers of corporations and technology to worm their way further and further into our lives. When we do not question technology like the RFIDs, we open ourselves up to more and more scrutiny, and that is frightening when this novel shows where that can lead.
The recent events in Iraq also point toward a collapse of our society's mores and sense of right and wrong. The American prison guards in Iraq abused and tortured Iraqi prisoners, and then their superiors said, "they were not trained" as prison guards. However, why does a person have to be "trained" to be humane? These acts were inhumane and dangerous, and yet, Americans committed them with smiles on their faces. What separates these guards from O'Brien the torturer in "1984?" Very little. Orwell writes, "Without any warning except a slight movement of O'Brien's hand, a wave of pain flooded his body. It was a frightening pain, because he could not see what was happening, and he had the feeling that some moral injury was being done to him" (Orwell 202). Taken out of context, this could be a description of an Iraqi prisoner, and it is truly frightening. If Americans are capable of murders, torture, and atrocities such as these, they are capable of creating a society far removed from utopia and perfection. Already our society suffers from violence and despair. We are only steps away from giving complete control to someone we see as more powerful and competent.
Even more frightening is the way the Party wins out over Winston in the end. They use psychology and mind-altering techniques to totally change the way Winston thinks, and to change his entire outlook. This is frightening because brainwashing is not absent in our society today, either. From commercials to presidential debates, Americans are fed a continual stream of propaganda created to make sure we believe our politicians, eat at McDonald's, and read "People" magazine. We allow ourselves to be led by the media, and this is not very far from the socialist propaganda of the Party in 1984. In the novel, the telescreen never stops and people cannot shut it…