What Orwell's '1984' tells us about today's world, 70 years after it was published (2022)

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.

(Video) 4 Ways Orwell’s 1984 Has Come True Today

‘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.

What Orwell's '1984' tells us about today's world, 70 years after it was published (1)

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.

(Video) 70 years later: Orwell’s 1984 proves it has staying power

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.

What Orwell's '1984' tells us about today's world, 70 years after it was published (2)

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.

(Video) 1984 or 2021? Are we in George Orwell's future?

This inert watchfulness can exist because television allows viewers to watch strangers without being seen. Scholar Joshua Meyrowitz has shown that the kinds of programming which dominate U.S television – news, sitcoms, dramas – have normalized looking into the private lives of others.

Controlling behavior

Alongside the steady rise of “reality TV,” beginning in the ‘60s with “Candid Camera,” “An American Family,” “Real People,” “Cops” and “The Real World,” television has also contributed to the acceptance of a kind of video surveillance.

For example, it might seem just clever marketing that one of the longest-running and most popular reality television shows in the world is entitled “Big Brother.” The show’s nod to the novel invokes the kind of benevolent surveillance that “Big Brother” was meant to signify: “We are watching you and we will take care of you.”

But Big Brother, as a reality show, is also an experiment in controlling and modifying behavior. By asking participants to put their private lives on display, shows such as “Big Brother” encourage self-scrutiny and behaving according to perceived social norms or roles that challenge those perceived norms.

The stress of performing 24/7 on “Big Brother” has led the show to employ a team of psychologists.

Television scholar Anna McCarthy and others have shown that the origins of reality television can be traced back to social psychology and behavioral experiments in the aftermath of World War II, which were designed to better control people.

Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram, for example, was influenced by “Candid Camera.”

(Video) We are living in George Orwell's 1984 and we don't even know it !!! [A Totalitarian State]

In the “Candid Camera” show, cameras were concealed in places where they could film people in unusual situations. Milgram was fascinated with “Candid Camera,” and he used a similar model for his experiments – his participants were not aware that they were being watched or that it was part of an experiment.

Like many others in the aftermath of World War II, Milgram was interested in what could compel large numbers of people to “follow orders” and participate in genocidal acts. His “obedience experiments” found that a high proportion of participants obeyed instructions from an established authority figure to harm another person, even if reluctantly.

While contemporary reality TV shows do not order participants to directly harm each other, they are often set up as a small-scale social experiment that often involves intense competition or even cruelty.

Surveillance in daily life

And, just like in the novel, ubiquitous video surveillance is already here.

Closed-circuit television exist in virtually every area of American life, from transportation hubs and networks, to schools, supermarkets, hospitals and public sidewalks, not to mention law enforcement officers and their vehicles.

What Orwell's '1984' tells us about today's world, 70 years after it was published (3)

Surveillance footage from these cameras is repurposed as the raw material of television, mostly in the news but also in shows like “America’s Most Wanted,” “Right This Minute” and others. Many viewers unquestioningly accept this practice as legitimate.

(Video) Orwell's 1984 70th Anniversary Livestream

The friendly face of surveillance

Reality television is the friendly face of surveillance. It helps viewers think that surveillance happens only to those who choose it or to those who are criminals. In fact, it is part of a culture of widespread television use, which has brought about what Norwegian criminologist Thomas Mathiesen called the “viewer society” – in which the many watch the few.

For Mathiesen, the viewer society is merely the other side of the surveillance society – described so aptly in Orwell’s novel – where a few watch the many.

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FAQs

What Orwell's 1984 tells us about today's world 70 years after it was published? ›

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.

What is Orwell's overall message? ›

The grand theme of Animal Farm has to do with the capacity for ordinary individuals to continue to believe in a revolution that has been utterly betrayed. Orwell attempts to reveal how those in power—Napoleon and his fellow pigs—pervert the democratic promise of the revolution.

What is the point of 1984? ›

More broadly, the novel examines the role of truth and facts within politics and the ways in which they are manipulated. The story takes place in an imagined future, the year 1984, when much of the world has fallen victim to perpetual war, omnipresent government surveillance, historical negationism, and propaganda.

What does Orwell say about technology in 1984? ›

In 1984 the use of technology dominates the world similar to the society we live in today. In the novel 1984 the technology is actually a tool employed by the government to spy on the citizens of Oceania; the government tracks telescreens and microphones to stay aware of what the citizens are saying and doing.

What does Orwellian society mean? ›

"Orwellian" is an adjective describing a situation, idea, or societal condition that George Orwell identified as being destructive to the welfare of a free and open society.

What is the meaning of war is peace Freedom is slavery Ignorance is strength? ›

The society that Winston finds himself in puts forth the slogan, "War is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength." The meaning of this phrase is to force confusion upon the members of the Party. It is a form of propaganda, or misleading information typically given by a political party.

What does the ending of 1984 mean? ›

At the end of the novel, Winston no longer exists as a thinking individual. He exists only as a puppet of the Party, forever selfless, forever loving Big Brother. Winston's self is the part that makes him human and unique — it essentially is Winston.

What can we learn from 1984? ›

Today, Nineteen Eighty-Four comes across not as a warning that the actual world of Winston and Julia and O'Brien is in danger of becoming reality. Rather, its true value is that it teaches us that power and tyranny are made possible through the use of words and how they are mediated.

What happens to Julia at the end of 1984? ›

In the end of 1984 by George Orwell, Winston Smith has become a model citizen. He and his lover, Julia, were captured by the Thought Police and tortured by O'Brien until they broke and conformed to society.

Why 1984 should be read and taught? ›

The content in 1984 is exactly why teens should read it before graduating. The teens of today will someday grow into people who could have control. If unaware of consequences, such as those in the book that might happen due to this type of government, the horrific accounts in the novel could become reality.

Why did Orwell wrote 1984? ›

Orwell wrote 1984 just after World War II ended, wanting it to serve as a warning to his readers. He wanted to be certain that the kind of future presented in the novel should never come to pass, even though the practices that contribute to the development of such a state were abundantly present in Orwell's time.

What did George Orwell think of technology? ›

Orwell wants to warn us against more than the power of technology; he wants to suggest that the human mind is the most dangerous and advanced weapon of all, and that we should never underestimate the ability of people to control each other—and themselves.

What is the memory hole in 1984? ›

Memory hole: a small chute leading to a large incinerator. Anything that needed to be wiped from the public record (embarrassing documents, photographs, transcripts) would be sent into the memory hole.

What's the meaning of 1984? ›

The primary theme of 1984 by George Orwell is to warn readers of the dangers of totalitarianism. The central focus of the book is to convey the extreme level of control and power possible under a truly totalitarian regime. It explores how such a governmental system would impact society and the people who live in it.

How is self expression connected to the ideas in 1984? ›

Without words, the people cannot adequately express themselves,their ideas,their unhappiness. By eliminating words, Big Brother eliminates individuality forcing the people to accept their fate and not question the status quo.

What is the meaning of ignorance is strength in 1984? ›

Throughout 1984, Winton has a pessimistic view of the Party's philosophy. Winston pertinaciously believes that 'ignorance is strength' means that if the people of Oceania are ignorant to the true intentions of the Party, which is to have complete control over them, the Party will be stronger.

Why is freedom slavery in 1984? ›

“Freedom Is Slavery” because, according to the Party, the man who is independent is doomed to fail. By the same token, “Slavery Is Freedom,” because the man subjected to the collective will is free from danger and want.

What are the two aims of the Party in 1984? ›

The two aims of the Party are to conquer the whole surface of the earth and to extinguish once and for all the possibility of independent thought.”

Does Julia get pregnant in 1984? ›

This paper will also provide evidence that, as a result of their coupling in the room, Julia becomes pregnant, and subsequently gives birth to Winston's child in the Ministry of Love; further, just as Winston betrays Julia by demanding that her body be exchanged for his in room 101 before the rats, so too does Julia ...

What is the last line of the book 1984? ›

Molly Schoemann-McCann: For an adolescent who was used to reading books with happy endings, the last line of George Orwell's 1984,“He loved Big Brother,” was a dark, brilliant, eye-opening kick in the teeth.

Is the ending of 1984 Good? ›

In the end he learns to love Big Brother and is finally happy, his last moment is one of complete bliss. After the struggle of the whole book it is nice that the protagonist we have grown attached to has eventually found peace and is no longer scared.

What is the most important lesson in 1984? ›

Rather than being a pessimistic determinist, Orwell was a committed humanist concerned that we not make our ultimate home on an anthill. More powerfully than any other writer, he warned us that dishonest language is a drug that can put conscience to sleep.

What does 1984 teach us about human nature? ›

Human nature demands that families are loving and kind; that a couple can spend time together and that love should freely abound in a society. Yet, human nature is controlled and to love is to fear the torture and threats from the Party. Love is betrayal and human nature is to fight against this betrayal.

What did George Orwell teach us? ›

He Taught Us How To Resist An Autocratic Autonomy

Orwell believed that corruption lies within the leaders of government who destroy or drive away anyone who dares to think differently.

Why does Winston cry at the end of the book? ›

He realizes that he has been mistaken all this time. He realizes that he loves Big Brother. Winston loves what he has been running away from.

What is Winston's biggest fear in the book 1984? ›

In Winston's case, it's quite easy to find his worst fear (rats) because he is caught by the telescreen admitting to Julia that he hates rats when they see one in their private room.

What is Winston thinking at the end of the book? ›

what is Winston thinking at the end of the novel? Winston thinks that he has won the victory over himself. he now loves big brother.

Is the book 1984 based on a true story? ›

George Orwell's 1984 is a fictionalized version of a then future-world where a totalitarian state scrutinizes all human actions through the ever-watching Big Brother. The book's focus is Winston, a state worker who struggles to live in such an oppressive world.

What are the symbols in 1984? ›

In this lesson, you read about three major symbols at work in the book: the glass paperweight, telescreens, and Big Brother. The glass paperweight symbolizes Winston's attempts to connect with the past. Telescreens symbolize constant government surveillance and the manipulation of technology.

How does the party use propaganda in 1984? ›

The Party's methods include using slogans that convey their message. They also use mass media, such as telescreens, to broadcast their versions of history to rile up the citizens and make them loyal to the Party.

Where does 1984 take place? ›

The book is set in 1984 in Oceania, one of three perpetually warring totalitarian states (the other two are Eurasia and Eastasia). Oceania is governed by the all-controlling Party, which has brainwashed the population into unthinking obedience to its leader, Big Brother.

Who is the main character describe the main character 1984? ›

Winston Smith is the protagonist of 1984 . He is the main character and narrator, and the reader sees the story almost entirely from his perspective. As a protagonist, Winston is not particularly skilled, charismatic, or powerful.

What do the memory holes symbolize? ›

Memory holes play very important roles in George Orwell's dystopian novel 1984. Memory holes are holes in walls connected to incinerators and used to destroy old papers and photographs. Primarily in the novel, they are used in the Ministry of Truth to destroy evidence of the government rewriting history.

What does the memory hole represent? ›

A memory hole is any mechanism for the deliberate alteration or disappearance of inconvenient or embarrassing documents, photographs, transcripts or other records, such as from a website or other archive, particularly as part of an attempt to give the impression that something never happened.

What happens when Winston and Julia meet after they have been released? ›

Describe what happens when Winston and Julia meet after they have been released. Include the verse that Winston hears. They admit that they have betrayed each other and that they don't feel the same about each other anymore.

Do you begin to see then what kind of world we are creating? ›

Do you begin to see, then, what kind of world we are creating? It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined. A world of fear and treachery is torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself.

How does George Orwell reveal character in 1984? ›

In Orwell's 1984, the author reveals the nature of his characters through either allusion or their interactions.

Why was it that they could never shout like that about anything that mattered? ›

Why was it that they could never shout like that about anything that mattered? He wrote: Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.

Does Julia get pregnant in 1984? ›

This paper will also provide evidence that, as a result of their coupling in the room, Julia becomes pregnant, and subsequently gives birth to Winston's child in the Ministry of Love; further, just as Winston betrays Julia by demanding that her body be exchanged for his in room 101 before the rats, so too does Julia ...

What does the end of 1984 mean? ›

At the end of the novel, Winston no longer exists as a thinking individual. He exists only as a puppet of the Party, forever selfless, forever loving Big Brother. Winston's self is the part that makes him human and unique — it essentially is Winston.

What happens to Julia at the end of 1984? ›

In the end of 1984 by George Orwell, Winston Smith has become a model citizen. He and his lover, Julia, were captured by the Thought Police and tortured by O'Brien until they broke and conformed to society.

What does O'Brien mean by the statement if you want a picture of the future imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever? ›

If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever. In this quote O'Brien is not merely being aggressive or insulting to Winston's hope for a successful overthrow of the Party. O'Brien is also explaining that the Party must have resistance in order to exist.

What are the three stages of reintegration 1984? ›

'THERE are three stages in your reintegration,' said O'Brien. 'There is learning, there is understanding, and there is acceptance. It is time for you to enter upon the second stage. '

Who does Winston love at the end of the novel? ›

In the final moment of the novel, Winston encounters an image of Big Brother and experiences a sense of victory because he now loves Big Brother. Winston's total acceptance of Party rule marks the completion of the trajectory he has been on since the opening of the novel.

Who is the main character briefly describe the main character 1984? ›

Winston Smith is the protagonist of 1984 . He is the main character and narrator, and the reader sees the story almost entirely from his perspective. As a protagonist, Winston is not particularly skilled, charismatic, or powerful.

Who is the most important character in 1984? ›

1984 Characters
  • Winston Smith. The protagonist of the novel, a 39-year-old Outer Party functionary who privately rebels against the Party's totalitarian rule. ...
  • Julia/The Dark-Haired Girl. Winston's dark-haired, sexually rebellious 26-year-old lover, who works in the Fiction Department at the Ministry of Truth. ...
  • O'Brien. ...
  • Mr.

What is happening in the last two paragraphs of the book 1984? ›

What is happening in the last two paragraphs of the book? The telescreen announces that Oceania has defeated Eurasia. Winston feels great joy and admits that he loves Big Brother.

The dominant reading of Orwell’s dystopian novel, “1984” has been that it was a dire prediction of what could be

Smith lives in a constant state of uncertainty; he is not sure the year is in fact 1984.. The telescreen is television and surveillance camera in one.. 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.. 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.. This inert watchfulness can exist because television allows viewers to watch strangers without being seen.. But Big Brother, as a reality show, is also an experiment in controlling and modifying behavior.. Television scholar Anna McCarthy and others have shown that the origins of reality television can be traced back to social psychology and behavioral experiments in the aftermath of World War II, which were designed to better control people.

Stephen Groening, University of Washington

The telescreen is television and surveillance camera in one.. A publicity photo on the set of the CBS anthology television series ‘Studio One’ depicts a presentation of George Orwell’s ‘1984.’ CBS Television Orwell’s telescreen was based in the technologies of television pioneered prior to World War II and could hardly be seen as science fiction.. 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 .. 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.. This inert watchfulness can exist because television allows viewers to watch strangers without being seen.. Alongside the steady rise of “reality TV,” beginning in the ‘60s with “Candid Camera,” “An American Family,” “Real People,” “Cops” and “The Real World,” television has also contributed to the acceptance of a kind of video surveillance.. For example, it might seem just clever marketing that one of the longest-running and most popular reality television shows in the world is entitled “ Big Brother .” The show’s nod to the novel invokes the kind of benevolent surveillance that “Big Brother” was meant to signify: “We are watching you and we will take care of you.”. Television scholar Anna McCarthy and others have shown that the origins of reality television can be traced back to social psychology and behavioral experiments in the aftermath of World War II, which were designed to better control people.

The techniques and technologies described in the novel are very much present in today's world.

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.. 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.. 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.". This inert watchfulness can exist because television allows viewers to watch strangers without being seen.. Alongside the steady rise of "reality TV," beginning in the '60s with "Candid Camera," "An American Family," "Real People," "Cops" and "The Real World," television has also contributed to the acceptance of a kind of video surveillance.. For example, it might seem just clever marketing that one of the longest-running and most popular reality television shows in the world is entitled "Big Brother.". Television scholar Anna McCarthy and others have shown that the origins of reality television can be traced back to social psychology and behavioral experiments in the aftermath of World War II, which were designed to better control people.. Surveillance footage from these cameras is repurposed as the raw material of television, mostly in the news but also in shows like "America's Most Wanted," "Right This Minute" and others.. In fact, it is part of a culture of widespread television use, which has brought about what Norwegian criminologist Thomas Mathiesen called the "viewer society" – in which the many watch the few.

The techniques and technologies described in the novel are very much present in today's world.

The telescreen is television and surveillance camera in one.. 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 other words, viewers watch themselves to make sure they conform to those others they see on the screen.. But Big Brother, as a reality show, is also an experiment in controlling and modifying behavior.

Videos

1. John Rodden on "What Would Orwell Say Today?"
(American Purpose)
2. Steve compares Orwell's '1984' to today's politics
(Fox News)
3. An INTJ look at Orwell's 1984
(INTJ Island)
4. #70- Are We Living in Orwell’s 1984?
(Online Great Books)
5. Orwell and 1984, Why it's a Masterpiece
(Ben Explains)
6. 45 George Orwell Quotes Chillingly Relevant Today
(SeffSaid)

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