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Is Obama Big Brother, at once omnipresent and opaque?And are we doomed to either submit to the safety of unthinking orthodoxy or endure re-education and face what horrors lie within the dreaded Room 101?“On January 24th,” the screen tells us, “Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh.
“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible,” including practices like imprisoning people “for years without trial,“ Orwell writes.
If the main story of 1984 is language and freedom of thought, a crucial part of the Snowden case is technology as a conduit of ideas.
If there is any doubt about the persistent power of literature in the face of digital culture, it should be banished by the recent climb of George Orwell’s 1984 up the Amazon “Movers & Shakers” list.
There is much that’s resonant for us in Orwell’s dystopia in the face of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA: the totalitarian State of Oceania, its sinister Big Brother, always watching, the history-erasing Ministry of Truth, and the menacing Thought Police, with their omnipresent telescreens.
The Party’s plans—the abolition of the family, laughter, art, literature, curiosity, pleasure, in favor of a “boot stamping down on a human face forever”—are never achieved because Newspeak fails to take. Because it was too difficult to translate Oldspeak literature into Newspeak.
The text Orwell singles out to exemplify this, intriguingly, is the Declaration of Independence.The “author” of the appendix argues that these ideas cannot be expressed in Newspeak, specifically the part about governments deriving their legitimacy from the consent of the people, and citizens having the right to challenge any government that fails to honor the contract.As long as we have a nuanced, expansive system of language, Orwell claims, we will have freedom and the possibility of dissent.This appeal to the integrity of language and principled thought may sound utopic or academic, but we are currently in the midst of a similar struggle.Consider the names of the post-9/11 programs that were ostensibly designed to protect the United States: the Patriot Act, Boundless Informant, and practices like “enhanced interrogation techniques.” The justifications of these 1984-sounding schemes—and PRISM too—follow the obfuscating principles of Newspeak and the kind of manipulative euphemism Orwell skewers in his famous essay, “Politics and the English Language.” He writes: “Political language—and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists—is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Orwell maintains that misleading terminology and evasive explanations are endemic to modern politics.However, we are surrounded by examples of technology used to question the status quo: Twitter and the Arab Spring is one example, Wikileaks is another, and so is Snowden.When Orwell wrote 1984, he was responding to the Cold War, not contemporary terrorism.Daniel Ellsberg had to photocopy the Pentagon Papers and distribute them in hard copies; now our language of dissent includes emails, tweets, and IMs.It’s worth recalling Apple’s famous ad that unveiled the Macintosh computer to the world in 1984, making full use of the reference to Orwell’s novel.All this may seem to be the endgame of indiscriminate data mining, surveillance, and duplicitous government control.We look to 1984 as a clear cautionary tale, even a prophecy, of systematic abuse of power taken to the end of the line.