Seventy years ago, Eric Blair, writing under a pseudonym George Orwell, published “1984,” now generally considered a classic of dystopian fiction.
The novel tells the story of Winston Smith, a hapless middle-aged bureaucrat who lives in Oceania, where he is governed by constant surveillance. Even though there are no laws, there is a police force, the “Thought Police,” and the constant reminders, on posters, that “Big Brother Is Watching You.”
Smith works at the Ministry of Truth, and his job is to rewrite the reports in newspapers of the past to conform with the present reality. Smith lives in a constant state of uncertainty; he is not sure the year is in fact 1984.
Although the official account is that Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia, Smith is quite sure he remembers that just a few years ago they had been at war with Eastasia, who has now been proclaimed their constant and loyal ally. The society portrayed in “1984” is one in which social control is exercised through disinformation and surveillance.
As a scholar of television and screen culture, I argue that the techniques and technologies described in the novel are very much present in today’s world.
‘1984’ as history
One of the key technologies of surveillance in the novel is the “telescreen,” a device very much like our own television.
The telescreen displays a single channel of news, propaganda and wellness programming. It differs from our own television in two crucial respects: It is impossible to turn off and the screen also watches its viewers.
The telescreen is television and surveillance camera in one. In the novel, the character Smith is never sure if he is being actively monitored through the telescreen.
Orwell’s telescreen was based in the technologies of television pioneered prior to World War II and could hardly be seen as science fiction. In the 1930s Germany had a working videophone system in place, and television programs were already being broadcast in parts of the United States, Great Britain and France.
Past, present and future
The dominant reading of “1984” has been that it was a dire prediction of what could be. In the words of Italian essayist Umberto Eco, “at least three-quarters of what Orwell narrates is not negative utopia, but history.”
Additionally, scholars have also remarked how clearly “1984” describes the present.
In 1949, when the novel was written, Americans watched on average four and a half hours of television a day; in 2009, almost twice that. In 2017, television watching was slightly down, to eight hours, more time than we spent asleep.
In the U.S. the information transmitted over television screens came to constitute a dominant portion of people’s social and psychological lives.
‘1984’ as present day
In the year 1984, however, there was much self-congratulatory coverage in the U.S. that the dystopia of the novel had not been realized. But media studies scholar Mark Miller argued how the famous slogan from the book, “Big Brother Is Watching You” had been turned to “Big Brother is you, watching” television.
Miller argued that television in the United States teaches a different kind of conformity than that portrayed in the novel. In the novel, the telescreen is used to produce conformity to the Party. In Miller’s argument, television produces conformity to a system of rapacious consumption – through advertising as well as a focus on the rich and famous. It also promotes endless productivity, through messages regarding the meaning of success and the virtues of hard work.
Many viewers conform by measuring themselves against what they see on television, such as dress, relationships and conduct. In Miller’s words, television has “set the standard of habitual self-scrutiny.”
The kind of paranoid worry possessed by Smith in the novel – that any false move or false thought will bring the thought police – instead manifests in television viewers that Miller describes as an “inert watchfulness.” In other words, viewers watch themselves to make sure they conform to those others they see on the screen.