Tuesday, January 20, 2015

1984: Big Brother Never Showed Up



I am re-reading "1984" for the Cold War class I am taking.  George Orwell's tale is so completely Evil Empire and so completely wrong.  In a bleak, battered London, Winston Smith toils rewriting history at his day job and trying to remember and write down the truth at night.

As a storyteller Orwell is brilliant and chilling.

As a prophet, he is a failure.  The world he imagined is nothing like what actually happened.  Orwell imagined a future with central control of information and nearly all history wiped out.  In this gray, impoverished world everyone is starving.

Closer to the future is Ray Bradbury's 1953 book "Fahrenheit 451."  You and I and everyone who read that book 30 years ago remember it as the book about burning books.  In this terrifying world in which Firemen start fires instead of putting them out.

But when I re-read the book several years ago, the thing that stood out was the video walls and the ear bugs.  The main character's wife had a room with three walls of video and wanted her husband to get promoted in the fire department so they could afford four walls of video.  With four walls, the video became interactive and she could be on game shows.  And everyone got music through bugs they fitted in their ears.  Bigger TVs, TVs that cover walls, music direct to your ears--that sounds like the near present and near future.

The guy who got the future right is Aldous Huxley in his 1931 book "Brave, New World."  Huxley imagines the future in which no one has to burn books because no one reads them.  In the Brave New World people are so glutted with entertainment and information that they are easy to manipulate.

Any prospect of the horrors of 1984 becoming reality died with the Soviet Union.  Communist China is becoming capitalist in a way that will eventually end the communist domination of the government.

But people who no longer read, who are obsessed with music and video, who are lazy and stupid--that world is here.  Prophetic Gold Medal to Huxley, Silver to Bradbury, no medal for Orwell.